This year was the first year that Mississippi teachers taught the Common Core standards in grades kindergarten through 12th grade. It was also the first year using a new computer-based end of year exam, which the state Board of Education voted in January to toss out after this year. And to add to the host of changes, this year was also the first for the “third-grade gate” test, which will check reading ability and prevent third graders from going to fourth grade if they can’t read on grade level. The Hechinger Report sat down with Darla Miller, a third grade teacher in east Mississippi, to talk about the changes and challenges that she has experienced in this year of reforms.
Q: There are a lot of changes happening this year, especially with exams. Are the simultaneous reforms challenging? Or do they complement each other?
A: You know, Common Core, it wasn’t that big of a step…I really feel like as far as my school goes, we’re in good shape. I know what the teachers at my school are doing and they’ve been doing these things for years.
[In terms of testing] there are a lot of challenges with it. For one thing, Mississippi only bought into [the Common Core-aligned exam] this particular year. We’re going to have a completely different test next year, which for us as teachers is very frustrating because when you’re working this hard to prepare for this kind of test, you want to know you’re going to see it again. That’s been hard to know that I’m going to see that one time and then I’m going to get a completely different test. At the same time, with the [third grade] reading gate test, we’ll see that again. That makes it easier.
Q: How are students handling the new exams?
A: They get stressed out. They cry. They get sick at their stomachs. They spontaneously start running fevers. They get so nervous unless you tell them ‘this is not life and death, you’re not going to lose your job over this, you’re not going to be in trouble, but you do need to do the very best you can do.’
That’s part of teaching, too, it’s teaching them there’s going to be things that are hard and the unknown is hard and you cant go into it so unafraid you’re unable to even make an attempt at it.
Q: The Pre-K movement has been picking up steam in Mississippi. With the increased emphasis on early childhood learning, is third grade too late for this type of a reading assessment? Should the ‘gate’ be in the earlier years?
A: The reading gate I think is where it needs to be because your foundational years are supposed to be [kindergarten through second grade]. If the foundation has been set, then we ought to be able to teach them deeper skills, which is what the reading gate tests. I do believe that there needs to be an assessment in every grade level. I think there needs to be one at the beginning of every school year to see where you’ve got them and I think there needs to be one at the end to see if there’s been growth.
Even kindergarteners need the beginning of the year assessment so you can let parents know right now at the beginning of kindergarten, your child is very much behind where he or she should be. And I think it needs to be the same assessment year after year. Right now, everybody has a smorgasbord of tests.
Q: Are parents or students concerned about the consequences of third-grade gate, in that students could get held back?
A: It’s a little unnerving.
You hate to hold them back a whole year in third grade when a whole year in third grade is not really what they need…If you’re dealing with a school that’s already a struggling school, can you retain 50 percent of a grade level? Is that possible? Are you seriously going to tell half of the population of third graders you’re not moving to fourth grade? I have a feeling that there will be a lot of readjusting over the summer once they get all the test scores in across Mississippi.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
This story was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education.