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Math teachers say students’ Common Core exams should get better over time

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WATERTOWN — Results from the second round of Common Core testing reported students’ math scores in New York are significantly higher than last year. North country teachers are attributing the increase in proficiency to having more time to prepare their lessons and expect their students will do better and better with each year.

“The Common Core is more rigorous than what we had before,” Beaver River math teacher Tina T. Becker said. Mrs. Becker, who has taught math for more than 20 years, said the way teachers approach math has changed — for the better. Instead of giving students a process to memorize and do problems over and over again, she said, the new questions apply a real-life use to the problem and allow students to follow steps in order of their own preference to find the answer.

“Math is math; basically, the stepping-stones are the same,” Mrs. Becker said.

She said one of the biggest challenges for her was not giving students higher-level problems than they were used to.

“I had to learn to step back and give them time to find the answers themselves instead of hand-feeding them the way to do it,” she said. “The new problems require a little more exploration on their part.”

Board of Regents Chancellor Merryl H. Tisch and state Education Commissioner John B. King Jr. released the results of the spring 2014 grades three through eight math and English Language Arts assessments that determined students statewide made significant progress in math, including students in every demographic from rural to urban students.

According to the governor’s report statewide, the percentage of students scoring at the proficient level and above in math rose from 31.2 to 35.8 across all grades combined. The percentage of students scoring at the partial proficiency level and above also rose in math, from 66.9 to 69.6 percent.

Students made slight progress in English Language Arts, though progress varied. The percentage of students scoring at the partial proficiency level and above in ELA also rose slightly, from 69 to 70 percent.

This year, assessment results were presented based on the performance of all students who took an exam in 2013 compared with those same students this year at the next grade level. This “matched students” approach focuses on growth in student learning and provides more useful data than an approach that compares the performance of one year’s students at a particular grade level against the next year’s group of students at that same grade level.

“The test scores show that students from all economic, race, ethnicity and geographic backgrounds can and are making progress,” Ms. Tisch wrote in the news release. “This is still a transition period. It will take time before the changes taking place in our classrooms are fully reflected in the test scores. But the growth we see is directly attributable to the dedication and determination of so many classroom teachers and school leaders across the state.”

Carthage Central School third-grade teacher Kristina C. Hathaway said initially, teachers had to learn the materials to successfully teach them to their students.

“The new lessons are rigorous and challenging to students. It was rigorous and challenging for teachers at first, too,” Mrs. Hathaway said. “You can prepare the lessons, but you can’t anticipate where the gaps in the lessons might be.”

Mrs. Hathaway said last year she felt as if she had to constantly monitor where every student in the class was and frequently return to lessons so her students had the building blocks to continue on to new lessons. But at the end of the year, she said, her students were able to articulate how they solved problems better than ever before.

“I felt like I had never seen students so ready and inquisitive about learning math,” she said.

Susan M. Healy, a kindergarten teacher at Thousand Islands Central School, said she and other teachers received training in Albany about how the standards were changing and more about data-driven instruction.

“When I first looked at these standards, I said ‘there is no way that a 5-year-old can learn this,’” Mrs. Healy said.

But she changed her mind after watching how her students, who had not learned math the same way as students in her previous class, absorbed the lessons.

“One thing the Common Core was meant to do was inspire a deeper understanding through questioning,” Mrs. Healy said. “The kids loved it. They were fascinated by topics in the ELA lessons and they really enjoyed the math. They caught on quickly.”

Mrs. Healy said in talking to her colleagues who teach first grade, she has seen a significant difference in children who learned from the Common Core modules and the students who hadn’t.

“Definitely kids who started in kindergarten had an advantage in first grade,” she said. “I think every year it is going to get better.”

Lyme Central School math teacher Elizabeth A. Wagenaar said the rollout of the Common Core modules and the change in the way her students solve math problems is “exciting.”

“Education is a cycle, but there is a newness at a level I’ve never seen since I started teaching in 1983,” Mrs. Wagenaar said. “Last year there were not high scores, but they’re getting better.”

One of the initial challenges with implementation was a scarcity of reference books for teachers.

“It forces you to get out and really dig into these modules,” Mrs. Wagenaar said.

She and her colleagues created slide-show presentations and supplied other teachers with the materials.

“This year I think it will be a lot easier for them,” Mrs. Wagenaar said. “I think with the right attitude of the teachers, parents and students it makes all the difference.”

Karen M. Donahue, Lyme Central School superintendent, said though students showed great improvement this year over last year in math, the teachers and students still have a long way to go to be more college-ready.

“We still have room for progress,” Mrs. Donahue said. “We want to go back and look at the itemized analysis and see where the gaps are.”

Mr. King said this year is only the fourth of a 12-year process.

“Like more than 40 other states, we’re in a period of transition; for us, that transition began with the adoption of higher standards in 2010,” Mr. King said. “These assessment results, along with our college- and career-ready high school graduation rate and NAEP scores, show we have a lot of important work ahead of us to ensure the success of all our students. But with proper support and resources and an intense focus on continuous improvement of instruction, New York’s educators and parents will help our students develop the skills they need for success in the 21st century.”

The report is online.

Common Core test report

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