In the three years since New York officially adopted the Common Core learning standards, students have tackled tougher assignments, teachers have remade assignments, and schools have rethought when topics should be taught — all in an effort to prepare students to show they have mastered the new standards.
Now, the first test of whether the teachers have been successful is here.
Next week, students in grades three through eight will take their first set of Common Core-aligned state exams, in English. The following week, they’ll sit for three days of Common Core aligned math tests. The scores will help decide everything from whether the students will be promoted to where they will attend middle or high school.
“They’ve been talking about the Common Core for a couple of years now,” said David Baiz, who teaches math at Global Technology Preparatory Middle School. “This year is really the year when we’re staring down the barrel of the gun.”
Baiz’s concern is especially notable because he has gone above and beyond what the city has asked him to do to prepare for the new standards, which emphasize critical thinking, problem-solving, and real-world applications of knowledge. As a “master teacher” with the nonprofit Math for America, Baiz has been working with a small group of other educators to reshape their own instruction and help their colleagues adjust as well.
Where some educators have waited to be told how to transition to the new standards, Baiz has run headlong into the shift. And where some teachers have struggled without curriculum materials that are aligned to the new standards, Baiz has helped create them.
Still, he said, “There is a sense of apprehension, maybe even panic.”
In a sweeping public relations campaign, city and state officials have said that, yes, scores will almost certainly be much lower this year than in the recent past — but that students and teachers won’t suffer as a result. For example, the city will not send all students who fail to summer school, as it has in the past; instead, only the weakest performers will risk being held back.
“No one is going to be penalized because the state has decided to make harder tests,” Department of Education Chief Academic Officer Shael Polakow-Suransky said. “We recognize that this is a big change and is going to take time.”
But Bushra Makiya, who leads the working group with Baiz, said the cautions are little consolation for students who have been trained to think of the tests as having high stakes — and for whom the tests do carry real consequences. (Makiya, who will take part in GothamSchools’ event Tuesday about the Common Core in math, wrote about her anxieties about the new standards last week.)
“They say these things in news like only 10 percent of kids will go to summer school but more than 10 percent are going to fail the test,” she said. “Sometimes the kids see it and they’re stressed out about it and I don’t have a lot of assurance to give them. Do I say, ‘It’s OK if you fail the test’? That’s not a good message.”
Makiya, Baiz, and other educators say they have done their best to simulate questions that their students will face on this month’s state exams. But with only a handful of sample test questions released by the state and no previous Common Core-aligned tests to learn from, they say they have been grasping in the dark.
“We can only imagine what a full-on Common Core test is going to look like,” said Jose Vilson, an eighth-grade math teacher at I.S. 52 in Washington Heights. Vilson will also participate in GothamSchools’ math event this week.
If Elisabeth Jaffe’s experience is any guide, students who see unfamiliar types of questions on this month’s tests could end up falling short even when they know much of the material. While high school exams won’t start changing until next year, Jaffe, an 11th-grade math teacher at Baruch College Campus High School, asked her students to do some Common Core-aligned work this year. One such request knocked her students off balance, she said.
“Students didn’t understand what I was asking,” Jaffe said. “They just assumed they wouldn’t know the rest of it, so they just stopped working.”
Vilson said toughening assessments as part of a broader shift toward instruction that emphasizes the kinds of knowledge and skills that students will need after they graduate from high school can be a double-edged sword.
“We want to teach students around learning, not so much around how to take a test,” he said. “But I don’t think the current environment lends itself to that. [Students] have to do well on the test.”