TOPICS > Education > American Graduate

Schools, students bracing themselves for new, tougher Common Core tests

April 8, 2015 at 6:25 PM EDT
Students in 29 states are taking the Common Core tests for the first time this spring. A few years ago, one school in Washington, D.C., changed how it prepares for standardized tests, adopting home visits, pep rallies and new curricula to give students a boost. Special correspondent Kavitha Cardoza reports on how the educators and students are getting ready to handle the more challenging tests.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Public schools in 29 states are taking the same Common Core standardized tests for the first time this spring. Slammed by the political right as federal overreach, and by the left as too much testing, the roll out of Common Core has been bumpy, to say the least.

Special correspondent Kavitha Cardoza visited one school in Washington, D.C., that has made great academic strides in recent years to see how they are handling a new, more challenging test.

Her report is part of our American Graduate series.

KAVITHA CARDOZA: It’s pep rally day at Jefferson Middle School in Washington, D.C. There are prizes and gift certificates and lots of cheering, all meant to get children psyched about the high-stakes tests they’re about to take.

Sixth grader Nazar Harper says it works.

NAZAR HARPER: It makes me really pumped up and feel like I can do the test and I can really just ace it.

KAVITHA CARDOZA: Principal Natalie Gordon and assistant principal Greg Dohmann do this every year.

NATALIE GORDON, Principal, Jefferson Academy:
I think testing can be a very anxiety-filled time for students. It’s an anxiety-filled time for staff members, for sure.

GREGORY DOHMANN, Assistant Principal, Jefferson Academy:
I think it’s really taking the stigma away from testing and not make it an event that they dread, but an event that we really build up and they actually look forward to.

KAVITHA CARDOZA: They say the strategy has worked. Just four years ago, Jefferson was struggling with low morale and equally low test scores.

Then Principal Gordon took over. She hired new teachers, changed the curricula and implemented home visits. That resulted in enviable double-digit gains in both math and reading on the D.C.-CAS, the test the District used to measure whether students were on grade level.

Now she’s hoping all that groundwork will help students conquer the new, more difficult tests based on the Common Core state standards.

GREGORY DOHMANN: The PARCC is my opportunity too. Remember, I’m giving out gift cards for those people who are demonstrating that they’re ready to rock this test, to show not only D.C., not only this school, but the world how smart Jefferson Trojans are.

KAVITHA CARDOZA: The Common Core standards were created by states as an attempt to set unified high expectations about what students should know and be able to do at each grade level, to be prepared for college and work.

The District of Columbia was an early adopter, but, until now, what students knew was measured by the locally developed test. This year, 29 states and D.C., approximately 12 million children, will take one of two tests, Smarter Balanced or PARCC.

Sixth grader Nevaeh Edwards has high expectations for herself.

I’m a little nervous because we’re probably going to be compared to the other states like Ohio and New York. But I’m really happy at the same time because we do have really, really smart children at Jefferson and we can show what we know to the rest of the country.

KAVITHA CARDOZA: There are other differences. This test is computerized and timed.

NEVAEH EDWARDS: And with the D.C.-CAS, it was on paper and I could visually see everything, and it wasn’t timed.

KAVITHA CARDOZA: Her classmate, Nazar Harper, agrees.

NAZAR HARPER: I think doing the test on the computer is more difficult, because some people might not have a computer at home and they’re new to technology.

KAVITHA CARDOZA: The school got 60 additional computers this year, and staff has restructured classes, so that children have more opportunities to practice basic keyboarding skills.

Math teacher Latisha Nero has been working with students all year on the tougher standards that focus on complex problem-solving.

LATISHA NERO, Math Teacher, Jefferson Academy: I think we’re all worried about it, only because we do understand that it is a very, very big jump for our students, because it’s a completely different way of thinking.

KAVITHA CARDOZA: She says, in the past, students were asked a question that focused on just one skill. Not anymore.

LATISHA NERO: So they may have to do a word problem where they’re using decimal computation to then go ahead and find the area of a different shape or figure. So, everything is more combined, and it’s really testing their understanding of the concept vs. just the skill.

BRITTANI OGDEN, Testing Coordinator, Jefferson Academy:  Pardon the interruption. At this time, all seventh grade testing groups should begin testing.

KAVITHA CARDOZA: It’s test time.

Testing coordinator Brittani Ogden spent the day making sure children could log in.

BRITTANI OGDEN: When you are the testing coordinator, you do a lot of moving around the building. So, for instance, today, I have already taken 15,000 steps.

KAVITHA CARDOZA: While it went fairly smoothly, the first day was stressful. There were lots of computer glitches.

BRITTANI OGDEN: Just being unfamiliar with how long it would take students to get into their testing locations, how long it would take us to read directions. And so everything got kind of pushed back. We had to alter our schedule, and I think just, overall, students and staff being nervous.

KAVITHA CARDOZA: Nevaeh ran out of time.

NEVAEH EDWARDS: I didn’t finish on time because I had one question unanswered. I felt bad because I was wondering how it was going to affect my score on the test.

Are you worried that, with this new rigorous PARCC test, that your test scores are going to go down?

GREGORY DOHMANN: I think, to some degree, it’s a little unavoidable. Now, of course, we don’t want to like resign ourselves to saying our scores are going to be low. We know that next year, when they take the PARCC, we’re going to see significant growth, and every year after that, we’re going to see significant growth. So this year is really giving us a baseline. We want that baseline to be as high as possible.

But it’s going to be what it’s going to be, and then we’re going to push on from there.


KAVITHA CARDOZA: There are concerns among educators that testing takes away time from teaching. But Nero says it can serve a purpose.

LATISHA NERO: So if we are giving students tests, we need to make sure that we are looking at the data, we’re analyzing that, we are identifying areas of weakness, areas of strength, and we’re using that to inform our instruction. If we’re just giving tests just to get one score and move on, then that’s more of a concern.

KAVITHA CARDOZA: Principals Gordon and Dohmann say they’re on board with the PARCC test because, in some ways, it is leveling the playing field, making sure children from all different backgrounds have access to a high-quality education.

NATALIE GORDON: I want my kids to know that they are as smart as the best kids in New York or California or wherever else they’re taking the PARCC. I want them to know that and. And, right now, there’s no way to know that they’re going to be able to compete when they go to Harvard or University of Pennsylvania or Dartmouth. Like, they — right now, we don’t have a way to prove that, so, if not the PARCC, something else.

And the students seem to have picked up on that attitude.

REECE PAULING: If I did really good, I would feel really happy. But if I didn’t do so good, I would say, I still tried, so — and that’s like the important thing here.

KAVITHA CARDOZA: Students at Jefferson Middle School Academy will take the second half of the test in May, and the results are expected late fall.

For the PBS NewsHour, I’m Kavitha Cardoza in Washington, D.C.


PBS NewsHour Education coverage is supported by American Graduate: Let’s Make it Happen, a public media initiative made possible by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.