Students To Face Tougher State Tests This Year

By Patrick Wall and Julie Shapiro  on September 6, 2012 7:40am

NEW YORK — As if the end of summer and the return of homework aren’t bad enough, soon students will have to suffer harder state tests.

This year, for the first time, students will be quizzed on new, more rigorous state standards which the city has quietly rolled out over the past two years.

For some, this won’t be pretty.

“This year’s test is going to be very difficult,” Schools Chancellor Dennis Walcott told reporters Wednesday during a tour of two schools that hosted workshops for teachers trying to implement the standards.

“It’s going to be tough-going,” Walcott added, “but I think we’re up for the challenge.”

In 2010, New York, along with most other states, adopted the new standards, called the Common Core — the product of a national state-led effort to create learning goals that encourage complex thinking and prepare students for college-level classwork and careers.

Since then, the city's Education Department has asked teachers to incorporate those standards into some of their units.

This spring, the state will debut new math and English exams for third through eighth-grade students that test their mastery of these more challenging standards. Some high school Regents tests will incorporate the standards the following year.

The Common Core standards — a set of grade-level specific learning goals, but not a curriculum — involve what the state calls “instructional shifts.”

In English, students will now read more nonfiction, approach work that may be above their current comfort level and talk and write about their reading by referring to details from the text.

In math, students will tackle fewer subjects each year, but they will go deeper so that they are able to explain the concepts and apply the skills in different situations.

“I honestly like Common Core,” said Michelle Roy, a seventh-grade social studies teacher at M.S. 223 in Mott Haven, where the chancellor stopped by Wednesday.

“I actually feel like Common Core is much more aligned to what children need to do in college and life,” Roy said, adding, “Life isn’t a multiple-choice assessment.”

The updated state tests this year will reflect the new standards.

The English exams will feature more demanding texts with questions that require deeper thinking and more detailed analysis. The math tests will include multi-step problems and real-world applications.

“It’s not asking them to regurgitate facts,” said Christopher McCloud, math department chair at School of the Future, a middle and high school near Gramercy Park, which the chancellor also visited Wednesday. “It’s asking them to assimilate [skills] in a problem-solving scenario.”

In a memo to principals in June, Walcott pointed to Common Core-aligned questions from a sample eight-grade reading test.

One question had students read a passage from Helen Keller’s 1903 autobiography, then explain how her changing attitude toward a doll reflects her changing attitude about learning words.

Walcott noted that the text is full of figurative language and short on context, and is “significantly more sophisticated” than the reading passages on older tests.

The level of difficulty on both the English and math tests could increase this year by one to two grades levels, according to Shael Polakow-Suransky, the DOE’s chief academic officer, who visited the two schools with the chancellor.

“The exams are harder,” he said, “which means likely it will be more challenging for kids to pass.”

Staff at both School of the Future and M.S. 223 said they were prepared for these changes and have been working to update their instructional units. Most described the more rigorous requirements as an improvement.

But some pointed out that many students lag behind the old standards, and that it would be a challenge to push them to those benchmarks within a year, much less to more demanding ones.

“We cannot do that immediately — there’s no way,” said Heather Burns, a literacy coach at M.S. 223. “It’s like skiing on a black diamond, instead of starting with a green and a blue.”

At School of the Future, Walcott addressed this concern.

“You’ve got a monumental task in front of you,” he said. “But I know you’re doing to do it.”

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