Why are some kids crying when they do homework these days? Here’s why, from award-winning Principal Carol Burris of South Side High School in New York. Burris has for more than a year chronicled on this blog the many problems with the test-driven reform in New York (here, and here and here and here, for example). She was named New York’s 2013 High School Principal of the Year by the School Administrators Association of New York and the National Association of Secondary School Principals, and in 2010,  tapped as the 2010 New York State Outstanding Educator by the School Administrators Association of New York State. She is the co-author of the New York Principals letter of concern regarding the evaluation of teachers by student test scores. It has been signed by more than 1,535 New York principals and more than 6,500 teachers, parents, professors, administrators and citizens. You can read the letter by clicking here. 

By Carol Burris

My speech teacher came to see me.  She was both angry and distraught.  In her hand was her 6-year-old’s math test.  On the top of it was written, “Topic 2, 45%”. On the bottom, were the words, “Copyright @ Pearson Education.”   After I got over my horror that a first-grader would take a multiple-choice test with a percent-based grade, I started to look at the questions.

The test provides insight into why New York State parents are up in arms about testing and the Common Core. With mom’s permission, I posted the test here.  Take a look at question No. 1, which shows students five pennies, under which it says “part I know,” and then a full coffee cup labeled with a “6” and, under it, the word, “Whole.” Students are asked to find “the missing part”  from a list of four numbers. My assistant principal for mathematics was not sure what the question was asking.  How could pennies be a part of a cup?

Then there is Question No. 12.  Would (or should) a 6 year old understand the question, “Which is a related subtraction sentence?”  My nephew’s wife, who teaches Calculus, was stumped by that one.  Finally, think about the level of sophistication required to answer the multiple-choice question in No. 8 which asks students to “Circle the number sentence that is true” from a list of four.

Keep in mind that many New York State first graders are still 5 years old at the beginning of October, when this test was given.

It is easy to point fingers at the teacher or school for giving the test, or to point fingers at Pearson for creating it.  The problem, however, goes much deeper. The problem (no pun intended) is at the core.

Question 1 on the first-grade test is based on the New York Common Core Standard, 1.OA4 Understand subtraction as an unknown-addend problem. Question 12 tests standard  1.OA6, which requires students to use the relationship between addition and subtraction to solve problems. Question 8 assesses Standard 1.OA 7 which requires students to determine whether addition or subtraction sentences are true or false. You can find the New York Common Core standards here.

This Pearson first-grade unit test is the realization of the New York Common Core math standards.  Pearson knows how the questions will be asked on the New York State tests, because they, of course, create them.  Certainly, districts buy Pearson materials in the hope of preparing their students for the tests that will evaluate teachers, principals, students and the school itself.

Part of the problem with the rushed implementation of this reform is that there was never sufficient opportunity for schools to carefully examine and critique the standards themselves.  In the field, it has been “whack a mole” as districts implement evaluation systems, testing and data driven networks while wading through thousands of pages of modules.

Are the standards reasonable, appropriate and developmentally sound—especially for our youngest learners?  In order to answer that question, it is important to understand how the early primary standards were determined.  If you read Commissioner John King’s Powerpoint slide 18, which can be found here, you see that the Common Core standards were “backmapped” from a description of 12th grade college-ready skills.  There is no evidence that early childhood experts were consulted to ensure that the standards were appropriate for young learners.  Every parent knows that their kids do not develop according to a “back map”—young children develop through a complex interaction of biology and experience that is unique to the child and which cannot be rushed.

We also know that the standards were internationally benchmarked. We are told continually that we are “falling behind.”  Yet the age at which students begin school varies from nation to nation.

In the United States, students begin Grade 1 at the age of 5 or 6.

In Finland, students begin Grade 1 at age 7.

In Singapore, students begin Grade 1 at age 7 after two years of kindergarten.

This is not an argument for starting school at a later age.  Canadian students also begin first-grade at age 6.  But we must recognize, especially given that Singapore’s standards were used to develop the Common Core, that we are asking our young children to engage in intellectual tasks for which they may not be developmentally ready.

Finally, let’s do a quick comparison of the standards of the Common Core and those of high-performing Finland.  You can find the math curriculum of Finland here ( beginning on page 158). You can find the New York Common Core standards for math here.

Notice that the first Finnish math objective incorporates the importance of students deriving satisfaction and pleasure from problem solving.  In contrast, the Common Core does not speak of enjoyment but rather “a habitual inclination to see mathematics as sensible, useful, and worthwhile, coupled with a belief in diligence and one’s own efficacy.”

The Finnish “description of good performance at the end of second grade” (there are no kindergarten or first-grade standards) can best be described as topical, open-ended and descriptive, thus allowing teachers to differentiate while working with tasks such as geometry or measurement.  In contrast, the Common Core standards are behavioral and prescriptive such as, second-grade standard: 2MD9.

“Generate measurement data by measuring lengths of several objects to the nearest whole unit, or by making repeated measurements of the same object. Show the measurement by making a line plot, where the horizontal scale is marked off in whole-number unit”. P 19.

Finns do not have an equivalent standard 2MD 19: Work with time and money. I will let readers draw their own conclusions.

I am amused by all of the politicians and bureaucrats who love the Common Core and see it as the salvation of our nation.  I suspect they are supporting standards that they have never studied. I wonder if they have ever read the details that ask first-graders to “compose and decompose plane and solid figures” and “to determine if equations of addition or subtraction are true or false.”  It is likely that much of the support for the Common Core is based on the ideal that we should have national standards that are challenging, yet the devil in the detail is ignored.

When one actually examines the standards and the tests like the sample I provided, it quickly becomes apparent why young students are crying when they do their homework and telling their parents they do not want to go to school.  Many New York children are simply not developmentally ready to do the work. Much of the work is confusing. When you add the pressure under which teachers find themselves to quickly implement the standards and prepare students for standardized testing, it becomes clear why New York parents are expressing outrage at forums across the state.

It is time for New York State to heed, at the very least, the New York State United Teachers’ call for a three-year moratorium on high-stakes testing, thus providing time for New York to re-examine its reforms, and change course.  New York, sadly, has been a canary in the Common Core coal mine, and if we do not heed the danger a generation of students will be lost.