Common Core Hits Fair Haven

Melissa Bailey PhotoFreddy Seminario pointed his browser to Road Trip Nation to search for a future career—and prepare for a new, more demanding standardized test coming to New Haven schools.

Freddy’s search began one recent morning in a computer lab at Fair Haven School, where 6th-graders were conducting a research project on careers they may like to pursue one day. The exercise was part of a new curriculum aligned to new national standards called the Common Core, which sets benchmarks each kid should be able to reach in English and math from grades K to 12.

New Haven has been changing its curriculum to meet those new standards—and to prepare for a totally new kind of standardized test that promises to be much more challenging for kids. Connecticut, one of 45 states that have agreed to adopt the Common Core, will require all school districts to switch to new Common Core-aligned Smarter Balanced Field Test by 2015.

New Haven has received state permission to make the switch early and pilot the new tests this spring, according to Assistant Superintendent Imma Canelli. The school district plans to ditch its longtime state standardized tests, the Connecticut Mastery Test (CMT) for grades 3 to 8 and the Connecticut Academic Performance Test (CAPT) for sophomores. Students in grades 3 to 8 and 11 will now take “Smarter Balanced” tests this spring, some time between April 7 and June 6, Canelli announced.

The decision applies just to English and math. The new science standards have not yet been released, so the new science tests aren’t ready. So students in grades 5, 8 and 10 will continue taking the CMT and CAPT science tests this school year and next.

The switch presents a technological challenge for New Haven’s schools. Unlike the CMT and CAPT, which students took with pencil and paper, the new tests require one computer per test-taker. The district is making use of a $2.7 million state grant to buy 3,000 computers and make sure each school is ready for the tests.

The new tests also present a challenge for kids. Each kid will take about six to seven hours of tests, which will require a whole new set of skills. Instead of reading and filling in bubbles, they’ll drag and drop using a mouse, take notes on a video, conduct research on the computer, and hold group discussions as part of test.

If other cities’ experience is any indication, the tests will be tough: Students’ scores sank in New York when it piloted similar tests last school year. Principals there protested that their students felt distressed and demoralized by the difficulty of the tests. This spring in Connecticut, the tests will not be “adaptive,” meaning they won’t adjust the difficulty to the level of each kid.

Fair Haven, a K-8 neighborhood school on Grand Avenue, is the city’s largest test-taking site. Four hundred kids will take the tests there in grades 3 to 8. Kids have already changed the way they learn math to adjust to the new standards, which cover fewer topics in more depth.

Real-Life Research

This year, kids are going through a new English language arts curriculum aligned to Common Core. The curriculum—like the Common Core tests—includes a greater focus on informational writing, speaking, and researching using multiple sources of info.

That focus brought Kathy Blodgett’s 6th-grade class one recent morning to a basement computer lab. Her kids researched careers they’d like to pursue using a free website called Road Trip Nation.

Freddy, who plays goalie for the school soccer team, clicked through a questionnaire on his interests. The site came back with a few recommendations, such as musician, comedian, mountaineer, winemaker, and photographer.

For each profession, kids can click on a video of someone who does that job. Freddy checked out Questlove, the drummer for The Roots. He took notes on what a musician does for a living. After choosing a profession to research, kids clicked over to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, which runs a kid-friendly webpage outlining the earnings and number of workers in various types of jobs.

Brittany Pinkston (pictured) investigated becoming a fashion designer.

The 6th grade has been conducting more research projects this year than it has in the past, according to Lauren Canalori. Before the Common Core, she said, students were tested on only one genre of writing—the one that appeared on the CMT.

The Common Core stresses informational and opinion writing as well as speaking to present information. Teachers are using lots of research projects to help kids hone those skills.

Principal Gethings said the Common Core curriculum is more student-directed. In a research project like the 6th-graders were doing, she noted, the teacher doesn’t have the answer.

Research projects this year at Fair Haven have delved into subjects like the history of jazz, using multimedia sources.

Notes From A Screen

In the past, research projects were based largely on books, Canalori said.

In past years, the computers in the library weren’t reliable. If one cut out, they would all shut down like a chain of Christmas-tree lights, according to Principal Margaret-Mary Gethings. “You couldn’t teach down there.”

The district replaced the outdated computers with 50 new ones earlier this year, according to district information technology chief Kevin Moriarty.

The school received 50 desktop computers from Quinnipiac University and 20 laptops from downtown lawyer Mike Stratton (who has since been elected as alderman in East Rock and Newhallville), Gethings said. Another 64 laptops are on the way before testing time—plus 150 more sometime before June—paid for by the $2.7 million state grant, Moriarty said.

The computers are helping students research not just with books, but with video sources and websites, Canalori said. They’re learning a new skill of taking notes from a computer screen and putting the material into their own words.

That’s what 13-year-old Kevin Cedeño (pictured) was doing as he leaned into a desktop computer in the Fair Haven library.

Kevin, whose dad is a cop in Florida, looked into becoming a police detective. He wrote down the criteria for the job: “A brave person. A person that does not give up.” He also took note of the average salary: $55,010.

Nearby, Mary Ruiz (pictured), 11, said she’d like to be a plastic surgeon. She said she’d like to help people who want to “change their face,” or change from a boy into a girl.

She poked around the Bureau of Statistics and learned that her chosen profession would take a lot of extra school. And it would yield a lot of money: An average income of $343,958.

The Test: A Logistical Feat

Mary navigated the computer with no problem. She said she has no computer at home. But she learned keyboarding skills beginning in 2nd grade.

The new tests will require not only keyboarding skills—which are new for kids who grew up typing only with two thumbs on a mobile phone—but mousing skills, such as dragging and dropping objects. Schools districtwide have been working to make sure the youngest tested kids, those in the 3rd grade, are able to do that. Others who have taken sample tests have said they find the directions confusing.

“The test is going to be a struggle,” Canalori said. “We want to make sure they’re familiar with the format.”

Each school is coming up with a plan on how to administer the test. At Fair Haven, kids will take shifts in the library.

The tests will be untimed. The state Department of Education estimates that the English and math portions of the test will take six hours for grades 3 to 5 and six-and-a-half hours for grades 6 to 8.

The tests involve solo activities, such as writing a response to a text or a video. They also involve “performance tasks,” which involve group work.

In one sample “performance task” featured on the Smarter Balanced Field Test site, 4th-graders read an article and watch a video on “animal defenses,” engage in a class discussion about the topic, then write an explanatory essay about the subject. The whole task is meant to take two hours and five minutes, plus one “stretch break.”

Unlike with the CMT, kids who finish the Smarter Balanced tests will be allowed to leave the room or go do something else if they finish ahead of their peers.

The Smarter Balanced Field Test is meant to be a pilot, a “test of the test.”  Kids won’t get their scores. Schools won’t get the aggregate scores until the fall of 2014, according to Canelli. Because of the unavailability (and potential unreliability) of the scores, New Haven is looking for other academic measures on which to grade its teachers, principals and schools.

The upcoming tests are causing tsuris among educators, who fear the long hours and difficult questions will stress out and deflate their kids.

Despite those worries, Blodgett said she finds the type of skills that Common Core stresses more “valuable” than those tested on the CMT.

“This is teaching them life skills,” she said of the Common Core-inspired research project her kids were taking on.

“There’s more emphasis on learning, instead of memorizing and spitting it back to us.”

Past stories on Fair Haven School:
Firefighters Respond To The Turkey Call
VH1 Helps 15th City School Start Tooting
Mr. Shen & Ms. Benicio Hit The Books
Maneva & Co. Take On The ‘Burbs
Aekrama & Ali Learn The Drill
Fair Haven Makes Room For Newest Students
From Burundi, A Heart Beats On
As Death Nears, She Passes Down The Dance

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posted by: HewNaven on December 10, 2013  9:24am

“I lose track of time when I’m thinking about… Armed Services.” Really now? Should that even be an option?

posted by: Megan on December 11, 2013  1:01am

In your “true vote” poll there should be an option (d) Neither. Common Core is more of the same: a money grab by testing companies and curriculum companies who care not at all about the creative and imaginative capacities of our children.

I recommend reading this lecture by David Coleman, a business man (never a teacher) and lobbyist for Common Core-style reforms whose company got millions for producing the Common Core curriculum.

Describing what changes we’ll see once Common Core is implemented, Mr. Coleman says, “In an elementary classroom I’d overwhelmingly see kids reading stories today where as they’d be spending half their time in the future building knowledge through informational text.”

Informational text includes things like instruction manuals, forms and graphs. In English class.

When I went to public school (in a high-poverty, mostly people of color urban school system), 9th English class was focused on the “coming of age” novel (Jane Eyre, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Black Boy, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, to name a few). 10th grade English class: American literature. 11th grade: British literature. 12th grade: world literature. Shakespeare was required every year. We also had a writing class, where we learned to write by reading and studying great writers. We also had Spanish and Latin class, where we read literature in Spanish and Latin and learned the art of translation.

Here’s what Mr. Coleman says about creative writing and writing that expresses an opinion:

“As you grow up in this world you realize that people really don’t give a s/*t about what you feel or what you think… it is rare in a working environment that someone says, ‘Johnson I need a market analysis by Friday but before that I need a compelling account of your childhood.’ That is rare.”

posted by: Melissa Bailey on December 12, 2013  4:45pm

Posting this comment on behalf of Jeffrey Villar, executive director of the Connecticut Council for Education Reform.

Letter to the editor:

I was happy to read the New Haven Independent’s recent article (“Common Core Hits Fair Haven” December 9, 2013) because it provided such thoughtful coverage of why Common Core is so important for our children. It gave readers truly tangible examples of the types of knowledge students in Fair Haven are gaining through new Common-Core-aligned curricula, as well as an honest assessment of the logistical challenges Connecticut will be facing as the associated assessments are rolled out statewide.

Given the concerns about shifting to new teaching styles and testing formats, I think Connecticut has acted wisely by providing districts with the opportunity to pilot a version of the test this year. This will smooth the transition and provide an opportunity for districts and the state to work out any lingering kinks.

With statewide standards of learning, parents can be assured that the progress their children are making in school is comparable to the progress being made by students in other districts, and across the nation. This type of change is worth working towards!

As the executive director of the Connecticut Council for Education Reform, I can speak for all of our staff when I say kudos to Fair Haven for their solid efforts to raise standards for all students. We wish them the best of luck with this transition.

Jeffrey Villar, New Haven