Schools in St. Lawrence County facing challenges with Common Core standards, even more testing this year
Saturday, September 28, 2013 - 8:24 am

By CRAIG FREILICH

St. Lawrence County schools are embarking on another frustrating and challenging year as students will be asked to take even more standardized tests than in 2012-13.

The increased testing for “data-driven instruction,” or DDI, follows what could be interpreted as discouraging results in students’ performance last spring on standardized tests designed to assess mastery of Common Core Standards.

“The scores mean very little,” said Norwood-Norfolk Central School Superintendent James Cruikshank, referring to the first round of Common Core Standards tests. He echoed the opinions of his counterparts in Potsdam and Canton.

“The state provided tests without having schools implement any of the materials. The scores reflect what the kids know about the Common Core,” which was not enough to score well, Cruikshank said. “The sequence was messed up.”

Only about 25 percent of St. Lawrence County students in grades three through eight did well enough in English and 25 percent in math, as measured by the assessment tests, compared with about 30 percent statewide.

Even More Tests This Year

This year the emphasis is on data-driven instruction.

“But the state tests won’t help that much in data-driven instruction,” said Cruikshank, because not much useful data could be derived from the results, in terms of curriculum development.

Now tests devised by teachers will be given every six to 10 weeks. “We’re looking at quarterly interim assessments which will measure how well we implement the curriculum,” Cruikshank said.

Poor Implementation

There is broad support for the Common Core Standards, designed to bring a higher level of education to students in this country, and to stem a decline in the educational standing of the U.S. among industrialized nations, so that our young people are prepared for the challenges of the 21st century job market.

The complaints to date have been more about the process than the goals.

“The assessments were based on the new curriculum,” some of which is still being developed in Albany, said Potsdam Central School Superintendent Pat Brady.

“Even today, not all of the curriculum modules have been released, yet the assessments were based on teaching this material.

“Of particular concern was the pace at which the standards were rolled out before the modules were presented. And we are still having to implement them before we have all the modules. The pace has been a challenge,” Brady said.

State education officials say the student scores should be seen as a reflection of the new higher standards and not as a failure of students and teachers.

But it was a failure, by the lords of education in Washington and Albany who devised a system that had teachers trying to prepare students for tests on new, tougher material without giving them the right tools, ultimately making the students and teachers feel like they had failed.

Expectation Raised

The process raised expectations and demands on students and teachers without explaining, as they do now, that the results of the tests are not a black mark against them, but were a way for them to show how badly prepared the kids are, so they can set a starting point, or a baseline.

“That was at least in part due to the huge amounts of funding offered by federal Race to the Top administrators offering huge financial incentives to states that implemented new standards by a certain deadline, which did not necessarily coincide with the preparation by the state of the materials to be taught,” said Brady.

“Last year probably proved to be the hardest year in terms of stress and emotion,” said Joseph McDonough, principal at Canton Central’s Banford Elementary School.

“While the level of the tests will remain difficult, we’re keeping it in perspective, not panicking, and we’re trying to feel good about how we did relative to the rest of the state. We’re moving forward,” McDonough said.

Cruikshank added, “I don’t believe there’s any professional licensure that has as rigorous testing.”

There were also loud complaints about how teachers had little choice but to take away from regular instruction time specifically to try to prepare the kids for the tests.

Amid Major Budget Cuts

And it was all coming during a continuation of years of school budget cuts statewide, which for many school districts has meant fewer teachers in the classroom and fewer support services.

“It is important to recognize that student achievement didn’t go down; instead standards went up,” said Timothy Kremer, executive director of the New York State School Boards Association.

“These scores will not lead to more teachers being rated as ineffective nor used to designate a school or district to need an improvement plan,” Brady said.

“That being said, we look at the scores and see a place to focus this year.”

“I do support where state education is going. I just don’t like how it’s getting there,” said Cruikshank.

“I support the common core. They are very robust standards, and I believe the students will prove worthy,” he said.

Regents Move More Slowly

While the DDI section of the reform plan by the state Education Department and the Board of Regents is being introduced this year, it will not be in every grade.

“The regents are moving more slowly at the high school level, and for good reason. We want to be sure the graduation rate is not affected” by suddenly imposing the more difficult standards on students at the cusp of their commencement., Brady said.

“How will our scores go? Up, because our teachers will have a chance to teach the curriculum,” said Cruikshank. “I have a lot of confidence in the teachers and administration. They have a phenomenal can-do attitude.

“Now we’re more confident. We’ve had more preparation for teaching the common core. Implementation is a high priority.”