before and after

Comparison of new and old state tests hint at challenge to come

This math problem is of the type that students in third grade should expect to see on this year's Common Core-aligned state tests, according to state education officials.

Educators have gotten a few hints into what new, more challenging state exams could look like this spring. To help them prepare more, city officials are encouraging them to review old exams and new sample questions side by side to see exactly what has changed.

While teachers waited for the state to release examples of how they are re-imagining the yearly exams to line up with new, Common Core curriculum standards, city officials offered their own comparison guide. The guide took the form of a slideshow, with examples of Common Core-aligned math and English tasks developed by city officials, and an explanation of how they compared to old lessons.

And when the state’s only batch of sample test questions came out in late June, city officials prepared another comparison, but with official questions and 2010 exam questions. They presented the comparison to principals in June at an annual conference for school leaders, and then gave it to reporters earlier this month.

The comparisons, officials said, show that students can expect to read more challenging texts and see more multi-step math problems and word problems that reflect real-world scenarios.

They include a set of algebra problems for third- and sixth-graders from 2010, followed by comprable problems from a 2013 sample test. One new question, for example, asks sixth-graders to consider a clothing store offering a 30 percent discount on its wares. In three parts, students must not only find the reduced price of several items, but also figure out what an item would cost with an additional discount, or without a discount at all. The comparison question from 2010 is a word problem with just one step, asking students to divide two numbers.

The comparison also show an English language arts text from 2010 and a possible 2013 text, along with several questions that ask eighth-grade students to respond to what they’ve read. The 2013 sample, from Helen Keller’s autobiography, asks students to close-read and explain two ways that Keller’s relationship with language changed in the passage. The 2010 questions are based on “Rufus,” a simplified version of a Kansas newspaper columnist’s chronicle of his dog. They ask students to draw just one example of the main character’s intelligence from the passage and then explain the non-literal use of the word “lost” in its opening.

Information about what this year’s state tests, the first aligned to the Common Core, will look like has come out in dribs and drabs, even as city and state officials have warned educators and parents to expect lower scores.

But more clues are coming next week. State officials plan to brief reporters on changes to the state’s assessment system, field tests, how questions are being developed, and how the tests link to the Common Core.

During a recent presentation to reporters on the new standards, the city Department of Education’s chief academic officer, Shael Polakow-Suransky, said the math questions were not necessarily more difficult, but would be more likely to test students’ ability to solve problems that require multiple steps and apply what they’ve learned in unfamiliar ways.

Nancy Gannon, director of the city’s Office for Academic Quality, said in a phone interview that multi-step math problems also require students to develop and exercise “soft skills” the Common Core is meant to foster, such as the willingness to try harder when an answer isn’t obvious.

“One piece of the Common Core is around building resilience and the capacity for kids to continue trying, persevering in the work,” she said. “It’s not just about computation, it’s about being able to carry a problem through. Hopefully we’ll get a better sense of how well they understand the concepts behind the problem … and where kids are falling off.”

According to the comparisons the city distributed, the state’s sample literature questions draw from texts with a much higher lexile (a unit of measuring the difficulty level of a text) than the 2010 eighth-grade ELA exam. Gannon said she expected to see reading passages’ difficulty rise across the board: In the past, she said, the texts have been so easy that quizzing students about them could not tell whether the students were on grade level, only if they were far behind.

“Our understanding of what is an appropriate text right now is significantly lower than what we’re moving toward,” she said. “For kids said to be reading on grade level last year, as we move to a more rigorous text it will look like their reading level dropped. It will look like kids are sinking when they’re actually not.”

There’s only one real way to guard against sharply falling scores, Gannon said.

“What does the test prep look like for that? It looks like kids reading a lot of complex texts and writing a lot of essays,” she said. “We think the kind of readiness that this requires is actually great instruction.”

The city’s document comparing 2010 test questions and the state’s 2013 sample questions is below.

call out

Our readers had a lot to say in 2017. Make your voice heard in 2018.

PHOTO: Chris Hill/Whitney Achievement School
Teacher Carl Schneider walks children home in 2015 as part of the after-school walking program at Whitney Achievement Elementary School in Memphis. This photograph went viral and inspired a First Person reflection from Schneider in 2017.

Last year, some of our most popular pieces came from readers who told their stories in a series that we call First Person.

For instance, Carl Schneider wrote about the 2015 viral photograph that showed him walking his students home from school in a low-income neighborhood of Memphis. His perspective on what got lost in the shuffle continues to draw thousands of readers.

First Person is also a platform to influence policy. Recent high school graduate Anisah Karim described the pressure she felt to apply to 100 colleges in the quest for millions of dollars in scholarships. Because of her piece, the school board in Memphis is reviewing the so-called “million-dollar scholar” culture at some high schools.

Do you have a story to tell or a point to make? In 2018, we want to give an even greater voice to students, parents, teachers, administrators, advocates and others who are trying to improve public education in Tennessee. We’re looking for essays of 500 to 750 words grounded in personal experience.

Whether your piece is finished or you just have an idea to discuss, drop a line to Community Editor Caroline Bauman at

But first, check out these top First Person pieces from Tennesseans in 2017:

My high school told me to apply to 100 colleges — and I almost lost myself in the process

“A counselor never tried to determine what the absolute best school for me would be. I wasted a lot of time, money and resources trying to figure that out. And I almost lost myself in the process.” —Anisah Karim     

Why I’m not anxious about where my kids go to school — but do worry about the segregation that surrounds us

“In fact, it will be a good thing for my boys to learn alongside children who are different from them in many ways — that is one advantage they will have that I did not, attending parochial schools in a lily-white suburb.” —Mary Jo Cramb

I covered Tennessee’s ed beat for Chalkbeat. Here’s what I learned.

“Apathy is often cited as a major problem facing education. That’s not the case in Tennessee.” —Grace Tatter

I went viral for walking my students home from school in Memphis. Here’s what got lost in the shuffle.

“When #blacklivesmatter is a controversial statement; when our black male students have a one in three chance of facing jail time; when kids in Memphis raised in the bottom fifth of the socioeconomic bracket have a 2.6 percent chance of climbing to the top fifth — our walking students home does not fix that, either.” —Carl Schneider

I think traditional public schools are the backbone of democracy. My child attends a charter school. Let’s talk.

“It was a complicated choice to make. The dialogue around school choice in Nashville, though, doesn’t often include much nuance — or many voices of parents like me.” —Aidan Hoyal

I grew up near Charlottesville and got a misleading education about Civil War history. Students deserve better.

“In my classroom discussions, the impetus for the Civil War was resigned to a debate over the balance of power between federal and state governments. Slavery was taught as a footnote to the cause of the war.” —Laura Faith Kebede

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.”