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NEW ORLEANS — Five weeks before the start of March testing, with excitement bubbling over for Mardi Gras, it was practice-test week at New Orleans’ John Dibert Community School at Phillis Wheatley.

Common Core test prep
Bodie Manly helps Jarmon James, 12, with fractions in advance of a PARCC-like practice test. Credit: Peggy Barmore

Instead of thinking about parades, beads and king cakes, fourth-graders were intent on the test papers before them and a large digital clock counting down on the whiteboard. Signs posted outside the classroom door cautioned “quiet, testing in progress.”

In Bodie Manly’s fifth-grade math class, students were reviewing material they’d likely see on the test. Some worked independently on laptops at their desks with headphones on while others gathered in a small group on the floor, manipulating colored foam shapes and puzzling over the fractional parts of a hexagon. The three-dimensional pieces enabled them to physically separate the hexagon into its many parts in order to visualize solutions. They were scheduled for the math practice test later that week.

All the preparation may not do much good. This year, Louisiana students are taking new math and English standardized tests linked to the Common Core, the five-year-old national learning standards adopted by more than 40 states — which test-makers and many education experts say will be less susceptible to the intensive test-prep techniques of the past.

Laura Slover, CEO of Partnership for the Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers (PARCC), whose exam is the model for Louisiana’s new test, has written that “there is no ‘test prep’ for these tests; these are the kinds of test items that require understanding of concepts and application that only come through a year of effective teaching, not through ‘drill and kill.’”

Nonetheless, it’s not stopping many Louisiana schools from trying — not so much to improve student performance, but to boost student confidence as children are tested for the first time on the Common Core.

Fifth-graders Kayla Venson, 11, and Amir Hansell, 10, review math skills online on the eve of their first practice test.

Common Core test prep
Fifth-graders Kayla Venson, 11, and Amir Hansell, 10, review math skills online on the eve of their first practice test. Credit: Peggy Barmore

“I know our curriculum isn’t about preparing kids for a test,” said Dibert School Director Diana Archuleta. “But, what we do know is that we have to ensure our kids are not going to be blindsided by the format of a test they’re not familiar with. It’s important for us to just make kids feel competent once they see it.”

Lisa Delpit, Felton G. Clark distinguished professor, college of education, at Southern University in Baton Rouge, is an expert on issues in urban education and language and literacy. Noting that many Louisiana teachers are in schools where children are reading below grade level, she said, “there’s no way to get [students] up to the level” required by PARCC in the time allotted between the introduction of the standards and the start of testing.

“If you started in kindergarten and kids had all their school lives, that’s one thing,” Delpit said. “To suddenly start in fourth or fifth grade or eighth grade or 10th grade, you wouldn’t have had the time to be able to have the kids familiar with everything.”

“There’s nothing else that people know to do,” added Delpit about the test prep. “That’s why I’m sure the principals are telling teachers that’s what they need to do.”

Before, schools would prepare with what they called “LEAP blitzes” — intense test prep during which students would be given lots of problems similar to what they would find on the Louisiana Educational Assessment Program tests, according to Michael Ripski, executive director of Achievement Network Louisiana. The nonprofit works with teachers and administrators to increase their understanding and mastery of the standards.

“They’re building the airplane as we fly.”

But the Common Core tests are different from the old Louisiana tests because they use complex, open-ended questions, or performance tasks, to test students’ understanding of the standards. There will still be multiple-choice questions, just not as many. And in some cases, there may be more than one correct answer.

“PARCC is a much more rigorous and authentic assessment of whether students know the standard, not whether they know how to answer a particular type of question that assesses that standard,” Ripski says. “It’s requiring schools to make a pretty big mindset shift that they’re struggling with.”

Common Core test prep
Teachers (left to right) Amy Dunbar, Courtney Saik and Cheryl Auzenne Brown discuss challenges of readying kids for PARCC. Credit: Peggy Barmore

Adding to the complexity of the test questions is the inclusion of the clock. PARCC is timed. The Louisiana state tests, LEAP and iLEAP, which PARCC is replacing, were also timed, according to a department of education spokesperson. However, educators say the exams were largely untimed the last couple of years and students will find the combination of PARCC’s time limits and rigor daunting.

When third-grade teacher Courtney Saik informed her class of 8-year-olds at Cedarcrest-Southmoor Elementary School in Baton Rouge that they would have 60 minutes to “‘read a lengthy story, answer multiple-choice and response questions, and write about it using paragraphs,’ I’d lost them already,” she said.

“They immediately felt defeated. They immediately thought, ‘Oh, I can’t do this. There’s no way I can do it.’”

For those who got through it, Saik added, “it was not their best work.”

Saik said she doesn’t want to teach to the test, but “as I’ve seen these PARCC-like test items, I’m having to almost train them: ‘When you see this question — when you see this academic vocabulary in this question — what are they asking you about?’ Then I have to relate it to a skill we have taught and that’s on their level.”

“We’re having to do some test-prep strategies that don’t feel like the exact message that you want to send to kids,” said Greta Anderson, math instructional specialist and department chair at Dibert.

“We believe if there’s a really challenging problem and you stick with it, you can get through it. The PARCC version of that would be if there’s a really, really challenging problem, give it some time, but not too much time, and then just move on.”

Common Core test prep
Math instructional specialist Greta Anderson (right) is uncertain about how her students will perform on the test. Credit: Peggy Barmore

Last year, Anderson could confidently predict which of her math students were on track to meet state standards and which were struggling.

“This time it’s different,” she said. “I don’t exactly know what’s coming.”

Anderson voiced the frustration shared by many Louisiana educators since the start of the school year. Their weeks of planning and preparation over the summer were thwarted by the political jousting in Baton Rouge between Gov. Bobby Jindal and State Superintendent of Education John White over the future of PARCC and the Common Core in Louisiana.

In June 2014, Jindal prevented the state board of education from contracting with publishing giant Pearson, the official provider of the PARCC test, resulting in the board sticking with its longtime vendor, Data Recognition Corporation, to administer what some call a “PARCC-like” test. Regardless, the board of education and educators continue to call the replacement test PARCC.

“It really doesn’t matter to me because either way, I’m thinking PARCC,” Anderson said of the confusion over what to call the test. “We’re taking and preparing ourselves for PARCC paper-based.”

“I don’t know why they keep changing the learning thing. The people who made PARCC don’t understand how we learn. Kids catch on to one thing then, suddenly, you have to catch on to another thing. I think it’s going to be a hard switch.”

Adding to the uncertainty, the state also decided midyear to back down from giving the exam online. Students began the year learning keyboarding and taking interim exams online in anticipation of a computer-based test, but then Superintendent White announced in October 2014 that the entire state would take a paper-and-pencil version of the test. In announcing the decision, White mentioned a survey by the Louisiana Federation of Teachers which showed that 87 percent of teachers believed their schools didn’t have the technological capacity for all students to take PARCC online, and 75 percent thought students lacked the necessary computer skills.

Related: Louisiana’s Common Core debacle

With the school year underway and a slowly emerging understanding of what the test could look like, teachers found themselves revamping curriculum or, in some cases, writing it from scratch as policymakers from the state to the district level made changes impacting everything from the way the test would be given to the materials used to prepare students — costing valuable instruction time.

“Lack of consistency has created unnecessary problems implementing sound educational practices in our classrooms,” said Amy Dunbar, a fifth-grade teacher at Cedarcrest-Southmoor.

“We’re being told something different on a frequent basis, and it’s making it impossible to effectively teach my students what they need to know and to prepare myself for what I want to teach them,” said the teacher with 22 years of classroom experience.

Related: Does Common Core really mean teachers should teach differently?

The Louisiana Board of Elementary and Secondary Education was scheduled to vote at its March meeting on proposed changes in how test scores will affect teacher and principal evaluations. But schools — knowing that this year’s test scores will matter to their own and their districts’ ratings if not to those of their teachers — have done the best they can to get teachers and students ready amid the uncertainty.

Some educators spent the summer participating in workshops on the Common Core run by the state or private entities. Others organized their teachers into study groups to discuss how to improve their teaching, or went online to keep abreast of changes in the standards and what was expected of them and their students.

A survey by the Louisiana Federation of Teachers showed that 87 percent of teachers believed their schools didn’t have the technological capacity for all students to take PARCC online, and 75 percent thought students lacked the necessary computer skills.

“We looked at the little bit they had online, but not very much was there,” said Josephine Batiste, principal of Cedarcrest-Southmoor. “They’re building the airplane as we fly.”

Batiste sent summer-reading packets home with students and tested them when they returned. She brought in a writing consultant to work with teachers over the summer, and hired half-a-dozen paraprofessionals to assist in the testing grades.

The school also ramped up small-group interventions for children who are struggling. And students as early as pre-K had to learn the 23 most common prefixes in the English language to strengthen their literacy skills.

“You don’t have time to do anything else but PARCC,” lamented Batiste. “They’re taking away the creativity of teachers because you’re always looking for how they’re going to assess this.”

Aaron McNeil, Jr., a 13-year-old seventh-grader at Dibert, is happy about the switch back to paper. “I work better when I’m using my own body,” he said, wiggling his fingers in front of him. But the rest of the uncertainty over the test has him “kind of a little bit stressed out.”

“I don’t know why they keep changing the learning thing,” Aaron said. “The people who made PARCC don’t understand how we learn. Kids catch on to one thing then, suddenly, you have to catch on to another thing. I think it’s going to be a hard switch.”

Related: Common Core works – when teachers and parents get a say in rewriting it

Despite the test prep and more rigorous curricula, teachers and administrators said they expect student test scores will drop just as they did in other states. Scores plummeted in Illinois, Kentucky and New York when the Common Core tests were introduced.

“This is not an easy year to be a teacher in America.”

Anderson, Dibert’s math department chair, reported that results from the practice test given Dibert students before Mardi Gras showed that students were still struggling to explain their reasoning on open-ended problems and struggling on questions with more than one answer. “Now, most middle grades are doing writing prompts almost every day in addition to going through with their normal content.”

Sarah Bliss, the sixth-grade reading teacher at Dibert, worries that low scores on the new test this year could prove “soul crushing” for some of her students.

“I do think PARCC is a really good thing. It’s just a really rocky road to get kids there,” she said.

“This is not an easy year to be a teacher in America.”

This story was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Read more about Common Core, New Orleans and PARCC.

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