better late than never

At long last, state releases Common Core-aligned test questions

A sample question from a sixth grade math assessment.

Educators sweating the state’s shift from old to new learning standards have received their first clues to what new tests will look like.

Teachers across the state opened their email inboxes Tuesday to an announcement from State Education Commissioner John King: Sample test items are now available.

Educators across the state have known for more than a year that next year’s elementary and middle school reading and math tests would be aligned to the new standards, known as the Common Core. But they hadn’t yet gotten detailed information about the assessments to help them revamp their instruction.

“It’s true that this is going to be a change in terms of the topics that are taught and the number of topics,” Shael Polakow-Suransky, the Department of Education’s chief academic officer, said this spring. “Planning for that is difficult given that we don’t know all the information at this stage.”

In his letter to teachers, King quoted an upstate official who told him, “The items are ambitious, but not unattainable.”

“We must be ambitious,” King added.

The Common Core shifts the focus of English lessons from narrative fiction to expository and argumentative writing. In math, it emphasizes word problems and problem-solving. And across all subjects, it favors assignments that deal with authentic, real-world questions.

The sample items reflect those preferences. Literary passages are pulled straight from classic literature, including works by Leo Tolstoy for third-graders and Jack London for seventh-graders, and informational texts that are actually in use, such as passage published by the Federal Trade Commission about the dangers of identity theft. In math, students are asked to consider the amount of water professional football players consume and the size of a school locker.

The state’s note for teachers points out that the locker question is asking fifth grade students to apply formulas in a real-world context, rather than simply calculating the volume of a rectangular prism. The state’s explanations also emphasize that the sample items are only meant to demonstrate the level of complexity of the coming questions, not the actual content next year’s tests will contain.

Molly Elverson, a seventh-grade math teacher, said the state’s disclaimer put her at ease that the new assessments would encourage a deeper, more rigorous treatment of the curriculum.

“It makes it seem like they will be expecting the students to actually understand, use and apply the topics they are taught,” she said in an email.

The questions looked “fair,” she added, but would pose new challenges to her students.

“I think the questions will push teachers to teach at a higher level,” she said, because many of the questions address multiple subjects at once. “In the past, topics were taught in a vacuum and questions only tested one standard at a time.”

Next year, state officials will not only have to make sure the new tests are aligned to the Core, but also that the tests are free of the quality-control errors that have plagued the most recent crop of tests. Those errors have raised larger questions about the overall quality of the tests, particularly after one heavily rewritten literary passage about a sedentary pineapple appeared on this year’s eighth-grade reading tests.

State officials have vowed to only use authentic passages that have been published elsewhere from now on. But critics and education officials, including Board of Regents Chancellor Merryl Tisch, says the tests need to become dramatically more rigorous, with questions and answers that make sense.

At a policy breakfast last month, Tisch said she warned Pearson officials that their mistakes have eroded public confidence in the tests just as they are poised to change dramatically.

“I would suggest to Pearson that they take this very seriously, because next year we are moving to the Common Core standards and those tests are going to be harder still,” she said. “What happens here as a result of these mistakes is that it makes the public at large question the efficacy of the state testing system.”

State officials have already posted curriculum guides and lesson plans on their website, EngageNY, and they have directed educators to an electronic library of resources, called the Common Core Library, being produced by New York City teachers. Teachers tasked with reviewing and building out the library have cautioned that not all of those materials are perfectly aligned to the Common Core, and still need to be refined to help teachers prepare for the new state exams.

Weekend Reads

Need classroom decor inspiration? These educators have got you covered.

This school year, students will spend about 1,000 hours in school —making their classrooms a huge part of their learning experience.

We’re recognizing educators who’ve poured on the pizazz to make students feel welcome. From a 9th-grade “forensics lab” decked out in caution tape to a classroom stage complete with lights to get first graders pumped about public speaking, these crafty teachers have gone above and beyond to create great spaces.

Got a classroom of your own to show off? Know someone that should be on this list? Let us know!

Jaclyn Flores, First Grade Dual Language, Rochester, New York
“Having a classroom that is bright, cheerful, organized and inviting allows my students to feel pride in their classroom as well as feel welcome. My students look forward to standing on the stage to share or sitting on special chairs to dive into their learning. This space is a safe place for my students and we take pride in what it has become.”

Jasmine, Pre-K, Las Vegas, Nevada
“My classroom environment helps my students because providing calming colors and a home-like space makes them feel more comfortable in the classroom and ready to learn as first-time students!”

 

Oneika Osborne, 10th Grade Reading, Miami Southridge Senior High School, Miami, Florida
“My classroom environment invites all of my students to constantly be in a state of celebration and self-empowerment at all points of the learning process. With inspirational quotes, culturally relevant images, and an explosion of color, my classroom sets the tone for the day every single day as soon as we walk in. It is one of optimism, power, and of course glitter.”

Kristen Poindexter, Kindergarten, Spring Mill Elementary School, Indianapolis, Indiana
“I try very hard to make my classroom a place where memorable experiences happen. I use songs, finger plays, movement, and interactive activities to help cement concepts in their minds. It makes my teacher heart so happy when past students walk by my classroom and start their sentence with, “Remember when we…?”. We recently transformed our classroom into a Mad Science Lab where we investigated more about our 5 Senses.”

 

Brittany, 9th Grade Biology, Dallas, Texas
“I love my classroom environment because I teach Biology, it’s easy to relate every topic back to Forensics and real-life investigations! Mystery always gets the students going!”

 

Ms. Heaton, First Grade, Westampton, New Jersey
“As an educator, it is my goal to create a classroom environment that is positive and welcoming for students. I wanted to create a learning environment where students feel comfortable and in return stimulates student learning. A classroom is a second home for students so I wanted to ensure that the space was bright, friendly, and organized for the students to be able to use each and every day.”

D’Essence Grant, 8th Grade ELA, KIPP Houston, Houston, Texas
“Intentionally decorating my classroom was my first act of showing my students I care about them. I pride myself on building relationships with my students and them knowing I care about them inside and outside of the classroom. Taking the time to make the classroom meaningful and creative as well building a safe place for our community helps establish an effective classroom setting.”

 

Jayme Wiertzema, Elementary Art, Worthington, Minnesota
“I’m looking forward to having a CLASSROOM this year. The past two years I have taught from a cart and this year my amazing school district allowed me to have a classroom in our school that is busting at the seams! I’m so excited to use my classroom environment to inspire creativity in my students, get to know them and learn from their amazing imaginations in art class!”

 

Melissa Vecchio, 4th Grade, Queens, New York
“Since so much of a student’s time is spent inside their classroom, the environment should be neat, organized, easy to move around in but most of all positive. I love to use a theme to reinforce great behavior. I always give the students a choice in helping to design bulletin boards and desk arrangements. When they are involved they take pride in the classroom, and enjoy being there.”

moving forward

After Confederate flag dispute at Colorado football game, schools pledge to bring students together

PHOTO: Marc Piscotty
Manual High students.

Acknowledging “we may never have a conclusive picture of what happened,” two Colorado school districts sought to move past a controversy over whether a Confederate flag was displayed at a football game and open a conversation between the two school communities.

The principal of Manual High, Nick Dawkins, wrote in a community letter over the weekend that the visiting Weld Central High School team “displayed a Confederate flag during the first quarter of the (Friday night) game, offending many members of the Manual community.”

Officials from Denver Public Schools and Weld County School District Re-3J released a joint letter Tuesday saying that based “on what we have learned to date, however, the Weld Central team did not display the Confederate flag.” At the same time, it said, multiple Manual eyewitnesses “reported seeing spectators who attempted to bring a Confederate flag into the game and clothing with flag images.”

Going forward, students from the two schools — one rural and one urban — will participate in a student leadership exchange that has student leaders visit each other’s schools and communities to “share ideas and perspectives,” the letter says.

“At a time in our country when so many are divided, we want our students instead to come together, share ideas and learn together,” says the letter, which is signed by the principals of both schools and the superintendents of both school districts.

The alleged incident took place at a time when issues of race, social injustice, politics and sports are colliding in the United States, making for tough conversations, including in classrooms.

Weld Central’s mascot is a Rebel. Manual, whose mascot is the Thunderbolts, is located in one of Denver’s historically African-American neighborhoods.

Dawkins in his initial community letter also said “the tension created by the flag led to conflict on and off the playing field,” and that three Manual players were injured, including one who went to the hospital with a leg injury. He also said some Manual players reported that Weld Central players “taunted them with racial slurs.”

Weld Central officials vehemently denied that their team displayed the flag. In addition, they said in their own community letter they had “no evidence at this point that any of our student athletes displayed racially motivated inappropriate behavior.”

They said district officials “do not condone any form of racism,” including the Confederate flag.

Weld Central fans told the Greeley Tribune that they didn’t see any Confederate flag.

Read the full text below.