The Short Hand on the Clock (On Common Core State Testing)

Jose VilsonEducation, Resources

It happens every year, no matter whose tests I proctor. My heart beats faster. Pencil points blunt and break, and I swoop in with a quick replacement. Students look up at me from their papers and I make a signal to look back at their papers instead. A few students take naps and I look at them with equal parts disappointment and envy, assuming they’d triple check their answers before putting their heads down. On the other hand, in the eyes of a middle schooler, what would an extra couple of correct questions do that a 10-minute nap can’t? Oh, and half the class is still working as the test time runs out.

“You now have 10 minutes remaining to complete this section of the test.”

The theory of relativity applies to testing time, too. Running out of time isn’t a concept that matters with 90 minutes left. Even with 75 minutes left, the number of questions doesn’t seem insurmountable. Students really start to fidget when they’re only halfway through the book and there are 30 minutes left, the audible sighs making their jittery hands still. My active proctoring, pacing back and forth through rows and aisles like a patience mouse in a closed-off maze, doesn’t figure into their calculations.

After seeing a student scribble down their answers with the mightiest stroke possible, causing their pencil to split in half, I felt a fury in me clench my throat. September was my 90th minute, trying to orient myself with the task at hand. By November, I still didn’t feel too worried about what I could cover, even though I noticed that the majority of students didn’t have 100% accuracy with their exponents. By February, my skin might have broken out in hives if it could, and by March, I was resolved to the idea that I wasn’t going to cover everything by April. This Common Core show must go on.When policymakers rushed through getting us these Race to the Top funded standards, there were three big reasons why Common Core proponents told everyone else we should believe in the Common Core:

    There would be less standards to teach, just with deeper understanding of the topics presented.Thus, there would be more time to teach each standard.Every topic is connected somehow to one another, so even if you don’t get all the way through a topic, the standards are cohesive enough that students would inevitably get the tools necessary to make it to the next level. (coherence)

One of the CCSS proponents’ major talking points is that Japan might only cover 50% of its curriculum in a year, but they beat Americans in international math metrics. After a few years of teaching Common Core to fidelity, I’m not convinced that any of the talking points make sense, despite some researchers’ best intentions. With testing coming in April for New York State, we’re asked to get more rigorous, go deeper, flip this and that, give difficult tasks, work on our assessments, throw in some exit slips to check for understanding, and, yes, get more rigorous than the day before. Because rigor means hardship, and indeed, CCSS has hardship written all over it.

Somehow, we lose track of time with all the time we think we had.

As a teacher, I’ve covered 90% of the pre-test material, but did I strike the right balance between depth and breadth? Did I go too fast for my English language learners, too slow for my highly numerate kids, or too tedious for any of the kids who go fast-slow-fast daily? Can I tell based on a test that spans over three days, 90 minutes each, but sits in the back of the collective educator ethos? Will I have enough time to grant students access to this knowledge through my work or will I have to go teacher-directed for all 140 days leading up to the exam?

What does student-centered look like when time grabs classrooms by the throat?

We’ll ignore the idea that perhaps we don’t have less standards in middle school. Instead, I invite you to reconsider our ideas about learning. As often as we studied ideas of linearity and parallel lines, we have to respect that student learning doesn’t work that way. Learning is not linear. Our structures suggest all eighth graders in the age of Common Core are learning the same material in parallel, that too comes into question with ten minutes left on the test.

There will be students who will have left the test with some confidence in their knowledge of the material, others not so much. They might all express the same feelings: ambivalence, elation, or frustration. Later on this year, June or August or whenever Governor Cuomo decides to release test scores to the public, students and educators will have those experiences in the classroom encapsulated in a set of numbers. In all those minds, the most common questions throughout will center on time, and whether we’ll ever have enough.

“This is the end of the test. Please put your pencils down and put your answer sheet inside your test booklet.”

Student tries to sneak in a few more words on their essay. You and me both, kid.