Monthly Archives: July 2016

PPI Series: Are you Smarter Than An 8th Grader? Sample Question from the New York State Grade 8 Math Assessment

PPI Common Core: Here to Stay?

Part eleven of an ongoing series on higher standards in New York State

To help educators and the public understand how the annual math tests have changed in accordance with what the state’s new, higher standards demand, the New York State Education Department has released a sample of test questions on  To solve the problem shown below, for example, students must recall the formula for the volume of a cylinder and apply it to solve a real-world problem.  The annotated answer key models how teachers should analyze their students’ work on classroom assignments throughout the year, looking at why students got the wrong answer and determining whether there is any pattern in students’ mistakes that would indicate the need to re-teach part of the unit.

Sample question from New York State Grade 8 Math Assessment

A water tank is in the shape of a right circular cylinder with a height of 20 feet and a volume of 320π cubic feet. What is the diameter, in feet, of the water tank?

A 16
B 10
C 8
D 4

Correct Answer: C
Measured CCLS: 8.G.9

Commentary: The item measures 8.G.9 because it measures using the formula for the volume of a cylinder (V = πr2h) to solve real-world problems; it has students solve for the diameter of a cylinder given the volume and height.

Answer Choice A: 16. This response reflects the radius squared of the cylinder. The student likely divided the volume by the height times π, but did not take the square root of the result to determine the radius. A student who selects this response may have limited understanding of how to solve for a variable in a formula.
320π ÷ 20π = 16

Answer Choice B: 10. This response reflects half of the height of the cylinder. A student who selects this response may not understand how to use the formula for the volume of a cylinder or the relationship between the dimensions of the cylinder.
20 ÷ 2 = 10

Answer Choice C: 8. The student correctly determined the diameter of the cylinder. The student who selects this response used the formula for the volume of a cylinder to solve for the radius of the cylinder, and then used the radius to find the diameter.
V = πr2h
320π = πr2(20) 2r = d
16 = r2 2 × 4 = 8
4 = r

Answer Choice D: 4. This response reflects the radius of the cylinder. A student who selects this response may understand how to use the formula for the volume of a cylinder, but may not understand the relationship between the radius and diameter of the cylinder or attend to precision when answering the question posed in the problem.

V = πr2h
320π = πr2(20)
16 = r2
4 = r

Answer options A, B, and D are plausible but incorrect. They represent common student errors made when using the formula of a cylinder to solve real-world and mathematical problems. Answer option C represents the correct process used to solve for the diameter of a cylinder given the volume and height.

Please click here to read part ten in this ongoing series.

PPI Series: The Common Core is Not About Zany Math or Indoctrinating Children. It’s About Conceptual Understanding and Critical Thinking in Real-World Contexts (Just Like the New SAT)

PPI Common Core: Here to Stay?

Part ten of an ongoing series on higher standards in New York State

You have probably seen the social media posts showing math homework that makes no sense or requires children to do multiple confusing steps to solve a simple addition problem. Should we blame the Common Core standards for confusing assignments?  The standards rightly specify that students need to be “fluent” in solving arithmetic problems—in other words, they need to be able to perform arithmetic calculations quickly and without stopping to think.  But the standards go further by demanding that students understand the concepts behind arithmetic and be able to demonstrate that understanding in more than one way. For example, students may use drawings or work with manipulatives to illustrate how arithmetic works. This enables children with different learning styles to experiment until they discover a model that makes sense to them.

At higher levels, students are expected to “solve math problems rooted in the real world, deciding for themselves which formulas and tools (such as protractors and rulers) to use.” Assignments and test questions often require students to complete several steps and draw on the application of multiple skills and concepts.  The rapid transition to the Common Core has afforded teachers and curriculum publishers less lead time than they are accustomed to, to develop materials to guide students through these conceptual processes and applications, and so the quality of lessons and assignments has been uneven. These growing pains are dissipating as teachers become more comfortable with the standards, and materials are revised and refined. Moreover, the availability of free video lessons on Khan Academy and elsewhere means that even the most math-phobic parent can find help with Common Core homework.

What about the Common Core standards in English language arts and literacy?  Some critics have gone so far as to liken the Common Core initiative to Communism or Nazism, or have said that that it is anti-freedom, or even that it will turn children into homosexuals.  If you read the Common Core standards closely, you will discover a certain irony to such baseless claims. At their heart, the standards ask students to become comfortable reading and analyzing texts drawn from real-world sources, especially non-fiction texts in science and social studies.

Under the Common Core standards, students are asked to do “close reading” and to ground their analyses in information gathered from the assigned texts.  The irony, then, is that Common Core opponents will be hard-pressed to find any evidence of Communism, Nazism, or homosexual propaganda in the language of the standards themselves.  Because the standards aim to instill critical thinking skills, students will inevitably be asked to study texts with which they or their parents disagree, including texts that espouse a range of social and political viewpoints.  The selection of particular reading materials is a local curricular decision.  So anti-Common Core activists are probably right when they warn that “[y]our child or grandchild will not be able to escape Common Core materials that are anti-Christian, anti-capitalism, and anti-America, or that are pro-homosexuality, illegal immigration, unions, environmentalism, gun control, feminism, and social justice.”  The Common Core standards are not about “escaping” from texts; they are about grappling with them.

New York’s rigorous Common Core-aligned assessments, though unpopular in some circles, will prove to be excellent preparation for the SAT.  One of the lead authors of the Common Core standards, David Coleman, is now head of the College Board, and under his leadership, the SAT has been redesigned in line with the Common Core.  The new exam engages students in evidence-based reading and writing, drawing on more non-fiction texts from science and social studies sources.  The math portion focuses on the areas of math that are most important for college and career, and asks students “to solve problems in science, social science, and career contexts.”  The College Board began administering the new SAT in spring 2016.  The smart money says that New York policymakers will maintain the state’s momentum in implementing the Common Core, to give our students the best possible preparation for the redesigned SAT.

Please click here to read part nine in this ongoing series.

PPI Series: Making Sense of the Controversy Over Raising New York’s Education Standards: Let’s Review

PPI Common Core: Here to Stay?

Part nine of an ongoing series on higher standards in New York State

In the wake of the 2015 opt-out testing boycott, Governor Cuomo convened a Common Core Task Force to study the standards and tests, and the New York State Education Department launched a survey to solicit input on the standards, particularly from parents and teachers. One benefit of such reviews is that they force would-be critics to actually read and become familiar with the standards.  According to the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, a think tank that specializes in analyzing education standards, most states that have conducted reviews have found that the Common Core standards are consistent with the research on what skills and knowledge students need to be college- and career-ready, and have therefore ended up making only relatively minor changes to the standards.

The Task Force’s report devotes much attention to describing stakeholders’ frustration surrounding the swift adoption and implementation of the standards, confusion over whether the EngageNY curriculum resources were mandatory (they were not), and complaints about the grades 3-8 ELA and math tests.  Congress’s December 2015 reauthorization of the federal Elementary and Secondary Education Act retains the requirement for states to test students annually in ELA and math in grades 3-8, so the tests themselves will remain in place.  But in a significant move, the Board of Regents has adopted the Task Force’s recommendation to remove any consequences for teachers’ and principals’ evaluations related to the grades 3-8 ELA and math tests until the 2019-2020 school year.

As for the standards themselves, the majority of responses to NYSED’s survey (more than 70 percent) were positive.  Moreover, the Task Force explicitly affirmed that New York must maintain high educational standards” and “build upon the foundation established by the Common Core standards.”  The aspects of the standards that received the most criticism from survey respondents had to do with the early grades.  The Task Force report recommended that NYSED seek input from child development experts to ensure that the standards for the early grades are developmentally appropriate.  NYSED is launching a process whereby committees of educators, parents, students, and–notably–business representatives will recommend revisions to the standards, to be implemented in 2017-18.  The Department has pledged to “use this feedback … to help us identify where and what changes are needed to make New York’s Common Core ELA and Math Learning Standards stronger.”  Indeed,  the best possible outcome of this scrutiny and fine-tuning at the state level would be if it were ultimately to strengthen the Common Core standards and improve their implementation.

Please click here to read part eight in this ongoing series.

PPI Series: Making Sense of the Controversy Over Raising New York’s Education Standards: What Is At Stake?

PPI Common Core: Here to Stay?

Part eight of an ongoing series on higher standards in New York State

Now that the grades 3-8 ELA and math tests reflect higher standards, and far fewer students are labeled “proficient,” it is commonplace to hear complaints about overuse of “high-stakes tests” in our schools.  Typically, a test is defined as having “high stakes” if it is used to make important decisions such as whether a student will be promoted to the next grade or awarded a high school diploma.  It is worth reviewing exactly what stakes are attached to New York’s ELA and math tests.  For many years (predating the current controversies), New York has required that students pass the Comprehensive English Regents exam and at least one math Regents exam in order to obtain a Regents diploma, so those are indeed high-stakes exams.  The ELA and math tests that are administered to all students in grades 3-8 do not carry high stakes for students, however.  Per explicit state policy, districts and schools are not encouraged to use the grades 3-8 ELA and math test results as the basis for decisions about placing students in particular courses or promoting them to the next grade.  If they do take the test results into consideration, it should be in conjunction with other information, to ensure they are looking at a complete picture of student performance.  The primary way in which schools use individual students’ test results is to identify those who are may be struggling and could benefit from extra help (known as “academic intervention services”) in reading or math.  In other words, students are identified and offered remedial education early in their school careers, as soon as the need emerges.  Many parents and educators object that the state has set expectations above “grade level” and that too many students are therefore being identified as in need of support.  In response, the state gave districts some flexibility in deciding which students should receive academic support services.  But the state’s essential position is that the expectations have been set externally, by colleges, employers, and other nations—all of whom were demanding more of high school graduates than our education system had heretofore been delivering—and that New York’s education system must raise standards to keep pace with the changing global economy.

Schools and teachers have numerous methods of determining whether particular students might require academic support, and indeed that is not the primary purpose of the federally mandated annual testing program.   Rather, the tests were instituted to provide a uniform source of data by which schools, districts, and states can be measured and held accountable for their effectiveness in educating students of different demographic groups.  Civil rights groups and advocates for students with disabilities have hailed the importance of the annual ELA and math tests in shining a light on achievement gaps that have, for too many years, left certain student populations behind.

Since 2010, New York expanded use of the tests from school and district accountability to include teacher and principal accountability as well, and these are the “high stakes” that have generated the bulk of the controversy.  As part of its successful bid to win $700 million under the federal Race to the Top program, the State Education Department and the New York State United Teachers union negotiated a law that requires districts to conduct thorough annual evaluations of all teachers and principals, and student outcomes are one required component of those evaluations.  (The majority of the rating is based on classroom observations by the principal or another trained evaluator.)  Teachers are not rated based on the percentage of their students scoring “proficient,” as that would be patently unfair to teachers of needier students.  Instead, all teachers of grades 4-8 ELA and math receive a “value-added” score based on how much each student improved on the state test compared with that same student’s performance in previous years.  The mathematical model controls for poverty and other factors, and teachers are compared with others who taught similar populations.  New York’s new Commissioner of Education, Mary Ellen Elia, successfully oversaw a similar system in Hillsborough County, Florida.  Hillsborough’s system awarded bonuses to effective teachers and had the support of the local union.  But the union backlash in New York has been fierce.  All of the NYSUT officers who negotiated the initial law were voted out, and the new leadership organized a campaign urging parents to opt their children out of the grades 3-8 ELA and math tests.

A primary rationale behind the opt-out movement is that if too few students take the tests, the data will become useless for evaluation purposes.  Of course, the data also become less usable for all other legitimate purposes, including measuring achievement gaps, making policy decisions, and conducting research into educational effectiveness.

Please click here to read part seven in this ongoing series.