Returning from spring vacation, Dowan McNair-Lee’s students find their desks in neat rows, facing forward. For the previous seven months, the 8th graders had sat in clusters, facing one another, to facilitate discussion. But janitors used the break to ready the classroom for the year-end tests that are only two weeks away.
The new arrangement is the backdrop for a changed tone in the classroom as well. All year long, Ms. McNair-Lee, an English/language arts teacher at Stuart-Hobson Middle School here, has been doing what millions of teachers across the country are doing: trying to help her students master the common standards, which all but four states have adopted.
The District of Columbia school system has chosen an aggressive and comprehensive approach to implementing the standards, making major investments in resources and professional development. But like most districts, it faces many challenges as it tries to turn its vision into changed practice in the classroom.
Now, with her calendar and her clock as constant reminders, Ms. McNair-Lee takes her students on a final, headlong dive into a review unit to bolster their skills. On this sunny April day, connotation and denotation are the focus of the lesson.
Ms. McNair-Lee displays the words “home,” “house,” “residence,” and “dwelling” on the big board up front. From the class, she’s trying to coax each word’s dictionary definition and then its subjective associations, both positive and negative.
Her students see right away that the words have similar official meanings, but their connotations vary. “Home” can imply “cozy,” “comfortable,” and “loving,” the students volunteer, while “dwelling” suggests something “basic,” and “residence” suggests a place that’s “cold, with no feeling.”
The students get that part of the exercise, but they stall when they apply the idea to other examples. Ms. McNair-Lee displays book titles that all use the word “chicken,” but in very different ways, such as The Best of Chicken Cookbook and Are You Chicken? Which ones use the word’s connotative meaning and which use its denotative meaning? she asks. The class is awash in blank stares.
You all are acting like I never taught this before, the teacher thinks. What didn’t I do right the first time?
As the clock ticks away the final weeks of the instructional year, Ms. McNair-Lee holds in her mind the interim test results that indicate her students’ weakest areas in the common standards. For this class, it’s vocabulary, text structure, and citing evidence from a text to support an argument. As much as they’ve been over this stuff, these pieces are still frustratingly elusive.
How school districts move the Common Core State Standards from the central office into classrooms can make or break the undertaking. Education Week spent six months reporting on how the District of Columbia’s vision of the common-core English/language arts standards is being put into practice in one 8th grade classroom at one school, Stuart-Hobson Middle School on Capitol Hill.
A school district reorganizes itself to bet big on the common core
Beginning the second-semester press toward common-core literacy skills
PART 3: Doubling down as year-end tests approach
PART 4: Analyzing the year’s work
Mikel Robinson, one of Ms. McNair-Lee’s 128 students, doesn’t yet show a strong grasp of the distinction between denotation and connotation, and today he’s distracted by 15 stitches under his left eye, the product of a household accident. In all his morning classes, he leaves for a while to apply cold cloths to his tender cheekbone, missing parts of the lesson.
Like many students across the country, Mikel often needs more support than is available to help him master academic expectations. And as high school draws near, he’s carrying a D in English for the third straight marking period.
His interim test results have improved a lot; on the most recent one, he outperformed his class on some questions and did well on citing textual evidence and analyzing a paragraph’s structure. He nailed the question on figures of speech. But his class grade suffers from failing to complete many assignments.
As she leads her class into the final push before the DC CAS, the district’s end-of-year test, Ms. McNair-Lee feels increasingly frazzled. She hates the emphasis on tests, and yet she sees them as one indicator of how well she’s prepared her students for high school. She wants them to do well, yet she knows the tests don’t fully capture what they know.
And she also knows that the students don’t really care how they do on the year-end tests. The scores are not factored into their grades, and results come too late to be used in the lotteries and applications that dominate the high school admissions process here.
It is all those competing pressures that collide in her head on this April morning. Ms. McNair-Lee was up until 3 a.m., worrying about the best way to do her review unit and whether she focused on the right things all year long.
This morning, Assistant Principal Katie Franklin, who oversees English/language arts at Stuart-Hobson, distributed aggregated interim test results showing how well students grasped the standards that are the focus of the DC CAS. On those printouts, mastery shows in green and less-than-mastery in red.
All the teacher could see as she flipped through her class printouts was “a sea of red,” she said. Sitting in an 8th grade assembly minutes later, as an administrator gave a pep talk about the upcoming tests, Ms. McNair-Lee had what she called “a meltdown.”
“I had to leave,” she said that afternoon. “I just walked up and down the halls. I needed time. I felt rattled. I was feeling like maybe I hadn’t done anything this year.”
She knows it’s not true; on that interim test, Mikel’s class soared on a standard they’d stumbled over before: citing textual evidence to support an argument. Mikel aced far more of the questions than he had in previous interims. And she’s seen her students grow in many ways that don’t show up on these tests. But those reds burn into her brain, overshadowing the rows of green.
Sarah Hawley is Stuart-Hobson’s instructional coach, but at this time of year, her dual duties as its testing coordinator displace her coaching. For the month that surrounds the DC CAS, she does virtually no coaching, focusing instead on the intensely detailed logistics of giving a secure exam to hundreds of adolescents.
Now, less than two weeks before the test, she is head-down reorganizing the school schedule, compressing classes and three lunch periods into the afternoon, after morning testing. When materials are delivered, she’ll supervise their unloading from the truck, and their placement under lock and key in her classroom. She will have to paste a bright blue sticker over her locked classroom doorjamb each evening to alert her to any unauthorized entry.
But even bigger is her task of orchestrating dozens of teachers’ duties during testing.
A faculty meeting about a week before the test is devoted to these details. Ms. Hawley walks teachers through a bulleted list of rules: No cellphones around the test materials; test instructions must be read aloud verbatim.
Discussion touches on how to minimize students’ getting up from their seats. What should we do if someone needs to blow his nose? a teacher asks. Tissues can be brought to students, it is decided, and wastebaskets for disposal, too. What about if students fall asleep? Can we tap them on the shoulder? (Yes.)
Teachers sign agreements consenting to the testing rules.
The instructional-coaching program falls far short of its promise, says Nathan Saunders, the president of the Washington Teachers Union, an American Federation of Teachers affiliate. The district has broken its pledge to have coaches in every building, creating a pattern of uneven support as teachers learn the common standards, he says.
District officials acknowledge that the program is evolving. Its goal is to have a coach in each building, but meanwhile, the instructional-coaching staff from central office works with principals at sites without coaches to ensure that teachers get professional development, said district spokeswoman Melissa Salmanowitz.
But the union’s concerns about common core run deeper. While it supports the standards themselves, the union local—like its parent national union—says teachers haven’t had enough time with the core to be evaluated on it. A rigid approach to those evaluations only makes matters worse, Mr. Saunders argues.
“There are certain things a teacher must do to score well [on the teacher-evaluation scale],” he says. “The same system that tells you you have creativity, that you have a thousand ways to do things, is not rewarding you for that.”
Brian Pick is asking the district’s principals and area superintendents to put on their student hats. In rows of folding chairs in a high school meeting room, they’re following along as he leads them through a “close read,” a skill prized by the English/language arts standards.
Chief of Teaching and Learning
District of Columbia schools
• Oversees curriculum, instruction, assessment, and professional development
• Led the design of optional instructional units and modules, along with required interim assessments and professional development, for common standards
Read his profile,
Stuart-Hobson Middle School
• 13 years teaching; her first year as a coach
• One of 113 coaches who work with teachers in nearly every school
Read her profile,
Stuart-Hobson Middle School
• One of two assistant principals at Stuart-Hobson; English/language arts and academic interventions are among her responsibilities
Read her profile,
8th Grade English/Language Arts Teacher
Stuart-Hobson Middle School
• 11 years teaching, including eight at Stuart-Hobson
• Her second year with this class; she taught the same students as 7th graders last year
Read her profile,
8th Grade Student
Stuart-Hobson Middle School
• Deciding among several high schools for the fall
Read his profile,
— Catherine Gewertz
About 100 administrators are gathered for one in a series of “leadership academies” where they share and study instructional and management strategies.
Up and down the center aisle, Mr. Pick paces. As the district’s chief of teaching and learning, he oversees the curriculum resources, professional development, and assessments for the common core. On this mid-April morning, he’s reading aloud the first two pages of David Mitchell’s novel Cloud Atlas. He leads the administrators through a detailed explication, parsing words to plumb the meaning of a challenging 53-word sentence.
Heads lowered, the administrators read and annotate. They’re getting a taste of what they should be seeing as they observe teachers at their schools.
Mr. Pick urges them to ensure that teachers use “rich texts” to facilitate deep reading, high-quality questions and good discussion and writing. The district is investing heavily in thousands of such books for its schools.
He gives a shoutout to the principal of Thomas Elementary, a struggling school that has extra district support to improve its literacy. He reviews the additional literacy resources that will be flowing into schools.
Chancellor Kaya Henderson offers the big picture into which the work fits: The district’s literacy goal is to have 70 percent of students proficient by 2017, but it must more than double its pace of improvement to do that.
In a visit to Thomas Elementary weeks later, Mr. Pick sees signs that the district’s approach holds promise. One of the district’s lowest-performing schools, it has made big strides. Spring 2011 reading proficiency was at 24 percent, but a year later, it had risen to 39 percent. Infused with a special district grant, the school is going full-bore into literacy, from intensive interventions for those with the weakest skills to enrichments for those more advanced.
Principal Ruth Barnes leads Mr. Pick on a tour of her all-hands-on-deck approach. For 45 minutes every day, all teachers read to or with students. In one classroom, music teacher Gregory Lewis is reading Sarah, Plain and Tall with three 3rd grade girls, while another teacher reads one-on-one with a boy in the hallway.
As part of an additional daily two-hour literacy block districtwide, Thomas’ kindergarten pupils are using the Tools of the Mind program, drawing pictures and writing about cowboys and cowgirls to build their content knowledge. They will build on their learning about the Wild West with themed books from the Magic Treehouse series. First graders in another classroom are working on phonics. In a 3rd grade classroom, students are reading a story that’s part of the Junior Great Books program. They’re drawing pictures of the protagonist and discussing how they envision him, using the inquiry and discussion methods that are the program’s trademarks.
Back at Stuart-Hobson, it’s the Friday before the DC CAS. Ms. McNair-Lee is super-focused today, but her students are sluggish, straggling in late. “We have a lot to cover today and not a lot of time,” she says.
Rapid-fire, they hit key ideas in the literature standards: author’s tone, mood, connotation, denotation. One after another, students call out the right answers. Good, maybe they’ve got this, the teacher thinks. They’ve been reading excerpts from The Adventures of Tom Sawyer and Little Women and articles about the expeditions of Lewis & Clark and Nathaniel P. Langford, and getting ready to write brief paragraphs on them.
They were supposed to be annotating in the margins about inferences, theme, allusions. But many students, including Mikel, haven’t done that.
Ms. McNair-Lee comes to his desk and goes over his packet, marking with black pen where he needs to complete the work. In one margin, where the packet asks him for conclusions he can draw about the difficulties of Lewis & Clark’s journey, he wrote “was a lot going on.” Pointing to that, his teacher says: “Be more specific.”
That afternoon, students pack the gymnasium bleachers for a pep rally. The 7th grade is dying to earn the “spirit stick” back from the 8th grade. But today’s top-line focus is the DC CAS.
Against a thundering backdrop of drums and horns, Athletic Director Leonard Booker yells, “Are you ready?” He orchestrates a grade-by-grade cheer:
“D!” shouts the 8th. “C!” shouts the 7th. “CAS!!” scream the 6th graders. Over and over, it ricochets through the gym: “D! C! CAS!”
Students sway and sing as pop songs by Adele and Lil Wayne boom through the speakers. They compete in a balloon relay race, a bean-bag toss, a ball-rolling contest. Mikel keeps his distance, watching from the top row with classmates.
The 7th graders beat out the other grades in the contests, winning back their spirit stick. Assistant Principal Franklin, who oversees 7th grade as well as English/language arts, grabs the bejeweled stick, marches it triumphantly to the center of the floor, and holds it aloft as her students scream and clap.
After the CAS, the mood at Stuart-Hobson changes; the last weeks of the school year feel like an exhalation. Field trips to museums punctuate classroom lessons.
Ms. McNair-Lee eases into her last instructional unit, which will use the Walter Dean Myers novel Monster to explore how point of view affects character and plot. With its focus on a teenage boy’s involvement in a murder trial, it lends itself to exploring varied viewpoints.
“Good morning, scholars,” comes the teacher’s customary greeting on a mid-May morning. She leads students in a discussion about analogies; they laugh as she mounts a make-believe trial over Mikel’s hairstyle, imitating first the prosecution’s case against him and then the defense’s.
But when they refocus on completing a packet of questions about Monster, students are only intermittently engaged. Just outside their window are warm sunshine and a sidewalk to summer.
Their teacher tugs their rope to reality: The DC CAS might be behind them, but their grades—and many high school acceptance decisions—are still in play.
“This is basically your last week of 8th grade,” Ms. McNair-Lee says. “There are some of you all who desperately need to pass this class this quarter. Those of you who are straddling the line ... need to be vitally aware of the game we’re playing here.”
As 8th graders struggle to focus on their work, Stuart-Hobson and district staff members plan for next year. In a classroom a few miles away, instructional coach Hawley takes part in a district lesson-writing workshop. She and about 40 other teachers and coaches were chosen for the Common Core Reading Corps, which has been drafting modules that will go online for use by their colleagues.
Today, they’re explicating “Dulce et Decorum Est,” a 1917 poem by Wilfred Owen about the human cost of World War I. Jessica Matthews-Meth, a district literacy specialist, leads them in a series of close readings, with annotations and discussion, asking them to consider how best to analyze the poem and the activities they’d propose for 8th graders to help them understand it.
Teachers pair up to write modules for their grade levels. Ms. Hawley and another middle school coach spread out at a table, writing questions for the two texts they chose: “Eleven,” a short story by Sandra Cisneros, and “On Turning 10,” a poem by Billy Collins. A copy of the 6th grade literacy standards open beside them, they write an overarching question for the module, with related activities and vocabulary.
Across the room, two kindergarten teachers do the same, using Kevin Henkes’ Chester’s Way to explore the unit theme of friendship.
At Stuart-Hobson, big plans are afoot for a shift toward new ways of letting students show mastery. This move toward “standards-based grading” involves profound changes: better ways of gauging learning as it happens, providing multiple chances for students to show what they know, on a more flexible timetable.
At a small-group coaching session in late May, Ms. Hawley and Ms. Franklin work with teachers of various grade levels and subjects to craft a new grading scale. What would mastery look like at level 3? How would it look at level 4? They dissect one standard into subskills, using them to write descriptions of how skills would develop and be demonstrated over time.
It’s a new way of thinking and will take time to get used to. On the board, teachers have written sticky notes about the things they must learn more about, things that could challenge their teaching practices.
“Flexible grouping,” says one. “Different ways to assess learning.” “Extension assignments.” “Scaffolding work appropriately.” At next week’s meeting, teachers will bring samples of student work and figure out how each one fits into the new grading system.
Other changes are in the offing, too. Ms. Franklin will leave Stuart-Hobson to join a principal-in-residence program at two other schools in the district. Ms. McNair-Lee will leave her classroom perch after 11 years to oversee Stuart-Hobson’s schoolwide enrichment program.
Late this week, Ms. McNair-Lee’s classroom will be empty. The students she taught for two years, the ones she refers to as “my babies,” will have crossed the Stuart-Hobson Middle School stage for the last time, in a graduation ceremony. She will clean up her room, under the clock that always reminded her how little time she had to get them ready for high school. She will wonder how they will fare in the months and years ahead.
She worked hard, did her best. And some students soared in her classes, with A’s and B’s and high test scores. Others, like Mikel, struggled to keep a passing grade.
How well this teacher served her students in these two years of full-tilt common-standards implementation is a story still being written.
The same question hovers over every building in the school district, and over the central office, which is orchestrating the big shifts. Some of the pages of that story will remain blank until the coming years, with all the twists and turns of students’ lives and studies, inscribe them. Some will be written late this summer, when teachers and district officials examine the DC CAS scores.
Coming in August: With year-end test scores finally in hand, district and school staff members reflect on the year’s work.
Coverage of “deeper learning” that will prepare students with the skills and knowledge needed to succeed in a rapidly changing world is supported in part by a grant from the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, at
A version of this article appeared in the June 12, 2013 edition of Education Week as Year-End Exams Add Urgency to Teaching