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Assessments, implementation and the CCSS

English Language Arts 3rd Grade curriculum "Ready New York!" published by Curriculum Associates
English Language Arts 3rd Grade curriculum "Ready New York!" published by Curriculum Associates
Beth Ellor

Rolling out the Common Core Standards can look very different from grade to grade and of course, school to school. In the school where I subbed last Monday, I covered double periods in 5th grade, then in 4th, and finally in the 3rd grade Mandarin/English dual language class while teachers had extra planning time.

Governor Cuomo touched on his plans for education and for Pre-K
Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images

First the good news – being my 5th year of subbing since retirement, I've seen these same children since 1st or 2nd grade, and I was pleasantly surprised by their newfound level of focus and maturity. Apart from the impact of their Principal and a remarkably stable staff of veteran and newer teachers, I cannot pinpoint an explanation, but it’s heartening.

Common Core curricula seem to follow a pattern of pre-assessments, interim assessments and post-assessments. This is a lot of assessing, takes time, and needs interpretation, though we can see the purpose. In each grade, I had to supervise the children while they took one of the English language assessments. Pre? Interim? Post? I’m not sure. Both the 4th and 5th graders buckled down without talking, so that I was able to walk around from time to time, keep them focused if they appeared glassy-eyed – no big deal. They answered some comprehension questions using evidence from the text – today’s mantra - and then had 2-3 long-form essays with a blank page for planning. 5th Grade worked all of the 2 periods, 4th grade fell apart towards the end – but how about 3rd grade?

This is one of the two dual language Chinese/English classes, the oldest of the cohort in this school. Each day they switch rooms, working in English or in Mandarin on alternate days. The extent of their learning is apparent in their writing – ‘small moment’ essays in English, and also in Mandarin characters. The vocabulary word walls, the rapid way they transcribe their pictographs…awesome!

Their test consists of two stories about Anansi the Spider, followed by some content questions with supporting evidence, some inference questions, and a short essay.

The mostly Chinese children solemnly read the stories and then their hands start to go up. “I’m not allowed to help you, this is a quiz about what you know,” I say. “But what does this word mean?” they ask plaintively. “Trickster.” “What is Trickster?” And there it is. The huge cultural divide that no-one seems able to work around or even comprehend. Barely or recently fluent in English, Chinese culture children (and Albanians, Yemeni’s, Pashtun’s et al) are expected to throw themselves into a world of idioms and inferences that not even native speakers (not even American children of African descent – from whence the Anansi stories came) have ever heard. They are guaranteed to fail. We don’t even need talking pineapples of the Pearson testing catastrophe to stack the deck against them. Are the stories accessible to comprehension alone? Evidently not – not in 3rd grade. Their thought process isn’t yet sufficiently sophisticated to make the necessary inferences.

There are some trickster parallels in Asian literature, such as wise Zen masters and wily Samurai’s. One charming example is: Three Samurai Cats: A Story from Japan by Eric A. Kimmel (Retelling), Mordicai Gerstein (Illustrator)

The oldest of three Samurai cats in the story uses non violence and patience to outwit a pesky giant rat who has taken up residence in a Dogen’s castle. Not exactly a trickster, but then again, few of the 7-8yr olds are steeped in fables and fairytales from any culture, not even their own! Some children are riveted by Goldilocks, Red Riding Hood, and The Three Little Pigs because they have never heard of them before. They might tell you all the characters in Minecraft, the Lego movie – or even the long history of Jason, the “Saw” saga, or Robocop. Every population has its local culture, and while by 5th grade, children may be able to identify common themes among the variety of stories, 3rd grade 2nd language learners stand very little chance. Nevertheless, the exact same blunt instrument is being used to evaluate not only these unique situations, but their teachers as well.

Click here for samples of the resources provided by NYSED

and here for typical programs purchased by NYC schools:

There are once again no elementary or Early Childhood educators on the new panel convened by Governor Cuomo to evaluate the Common Core New York State rollout. There were none on the panel that wrote the Standards, either. Will we ever be heard? Perhaps the wily old samurai who defeats the giant, greedy rat has a message for us all...? Surely we can take heart from Mahatma Gandhi — 'First they ignore you, then they laugh at you, then they fight you - and then you win.' - Governor Cuomo’s announcement. - Commentary from progressive activists.

As for the publishers who invented all the shiny new curricula – and they have written their very own interpretation of the CCSS – who knows where they got their ideas!!

So when you are comparing test results and school grades, please look first at school culture, diversity, environment – the warmth of the welcome, the genuineness of the recognition of each child. The benefits a child will receive can far outweigh the artifice of a test-based number that truly represents - - - nothing.

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