New Tests Ahead for New Orleans Schools
Reaching for new standards
You are waiting for a bus. The sign says the bus comes every 15 minutes with a starting time of 5:53 a.m. It is 3:25 p.m., so when will the next bus arrive?
If it’s a New Orleans bus, the answer is, who knows? But if you’re in the third grade and you see this question on a Louisiana assessment test, you better add up the numbers and come up with an answer of 3:38 p.m.
Too many wrong answers on such questions could jeopardize your teacher’s job, your school’s reputation and your country’s competitiveness on the world stage.
In 2015, Louisiana’s third graders will see such questions on the math portion of standardized tests. This word problem is an example of the testing that will be used to determine if schools are effectively implementing the common core curriculum that 48 states have committed to follow in the future.
It is a tough set of standards that integrates computer skills, literacy, computation and thinking skills in ways that Louisiana students have yet to encounter. Students will take online tests to measure their achievement and those tests will require writing skills to answer even the most basic math questions.
“It would be a very challenging curriculum for private schools around the country,” says Mickey Landry, principal of Lafayette Academy Charter School. “It’s a very good curriculum. I like it a lot from that perspective.”
The common core is designed to prepare students for college and the workforce as early as kindergarten. It is intended to develop the critical thinking skills that American students and future workers need to succeed in a competitive global economy. It forces students to use the disparate skills they are taught in classrooms to solve real world problems.
With test scores showing American students falling further and further behind competitors’, the nation’s governors and state education leaders have agreed to this common strategy to catch up.
Researchers have determined that in the United States there’s a one- to two-year gap between what colleges expect high school graduates to know and what high schools are actually teaching them. Such research explains why so many entering college freshmen must take remedial courses before starting college level work.
On the other hand, implementing this tough curriculum comes at the same time as several other game changing reforms. For educators in New Orleans, it comes at a time when they are just now bringing public school students up to the proficiency level of present standards – standards that are now deemed far too low.
“It’s a lot of hard work,” says Patricia McBride, a former first grade teacher in Petal, Miss., who helped teachers in her district prepare for the change.
As an instructional leader, McBride says that her job was to get overloaded teachers involved in preparing classroom materials. Teachers have endured “a lot of changes in the last 10 years,” she says. “They have been asked to change and change and change.”
In McBride’s district, teachers met each week last summer at no extra pay to prepare. They did it, she says, because they want their kids to do well and their “jobs are at stake.”
Under this curriculum, even first graders are expected to read well enough to identify an author’s main point and to write a main point of their own. They must write a five-paragraph essay using research, McBride says.
Overall, teachers will teach material that’s about two grade levels above what they’re used to teaching, educators say. In Louisiana, they’ll be adapting to these rigorous standards at a time when they’re still adjusting to a state accountability system that gives schools grades “A” through “F,” based on test scores and other measures. In addition, teachers’ job security rests on annual evaluations that are partly based on test scores. If their students don’t show adequate academic growth, they could lose tenure and their jobs.
In addition to the increased complexity of the academic instruction, students eventually will take all standardized tests on computers, rather than using paper and pencils as they do now. Some of the tests will be multiple choice, but they’ll also be required to write two-page essays.
In the classroom, students will receive computer instruction so that they’re familiar with skills such as typing, relocating information by dragging and doing online research. English and reading instruction will shift from fiction-based materials to more non-fiction beginning as low as the first grade. Curriculum designers say that students need to be trained as early as possible for the technical careers that await them.
Since Hurricane Katrina, when the state took over low-performing schools and put them in the Recovery School District, New Orleans schools have made miraculous strides in raising the achievement levels of low-income students, but a large percentage of students are still performing below “basic” as judged by present standards. In two years, the same students, many who live in extreme poverty and are traumatized by neighborhood violence, will be expected to perform at even higher levels.
Educators are bracing themselves for what they call an “implementation dip” in test scores. In Kentucky, even after three years of teaching training, the percentage of students scoring “proficient” or better on tests measuring the new standards dropped for elementary and middle school students, educators say.
“Louisiana has not done anywhere near that much preparation,” Landry says. “It’s a huge, looming issue for the state of Louisiana.”
Susan Jurkunas, who’s in charge of common core preparation at Lafayette Academy, says that teachers in her school meet on Tuesday and Thursday afternoons after classes to develop curriculum strategies and new lesson plans. Another challenge will be preparing the public and parents for decreasing test scores.
“I anticipate we will take a hit this year and maybe next year,” Jurkunas says, “but then we will be speeding along.”