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New principal
Third-grade students at Sylvanie Williams College Prep elementary school read individually in class, on Jan. 16, 2015, in New Orleans. Fifty percent of the children here started the academic year below grade level in reading and math. The goal is to help them catch up and keep making progress. (Reproduction of this photo not permitted) Credit: Melanie Stetson Freeman/The Christian Science Monitor

This story is the third in a yearlong series following Krystal Hardy, a first-year principal trying to bring order and improve test scores at a struggling New Orleans charter school. The project is a partnership between The Christian Science Monitor and The Hechinger Report.

NEW ORLEANS — A week before their final round of Common Core tests, the fifth-graders at Sylvanie Williams College Prep, a charter school in New Orleans, are reviewing the procedures for solving a multi-part word problem in math. Their principal, Krystal Hardy, looks on.

“Pay attention! I’ve seen these kinds of questions on the PARCC test,” says math teacher Tiffany Labrie, referring to the Common Core tests that most students in Louisiana take this month. “This calls for converting ounces to pounds, so you can use your reference sheet,” she tells them, indicating a handout on every desk.

“Don’t forget, you can use the reference sheet today, but also on the what?” asks Ms. Labrie, rhetorically.

“PARCC!” the children shout.

“PARCC!” echoes Labrie. “You’ll have those reference sheets during the PARCC tests. Remember to use them!”

Ms. Hardy – who is in her first year as principal – has staked her career on improving the culture and upping the test scores at this struggling elementary school, located in a gritty part of New Orleans’ Central City neighborhood. At the start of the academic year in August, 50 percent of the approximately 400 students, nearly all of whom are African-American and most of whom are poor, scored below grade level in reading and math. Their road to improvement is paved with tests.

Indeed, like most public school students across America, pupils at Sylvanie Williams get tested often – although Hardy is trying to balance the “data-driven instruction” with a strong social justice curriculum.

“They’re used to it.”

The earliest tests this year helped teachers figure out which students had learned the material and which ones needed that lesson again. After five months, Hardy and her staff began diving deeper, comparing test results with worksheets that students completed in class. When they saw patterns of errors, the teachers themselves worked through the problems, trying to figure out exactly where the students were going wrong.

Their findings have already dramatically changed the way teachers teach. And the teachers are noticing that student achievement is picking up.

“We were able to administer targeted medicine,” says Hardy.

“Instead of saying, ‘Some of these students aren’t good at multiplying,’ ” she says, “we could start to say, for example, that 40 percent of these students in this class don’t seem to understand the place-value concept in three-digit numbers and about 40 percent, say, understand the concept but are not paying attention to details when they compute.”

Students at Sylvanie Williams take annual tests in science and social studies aligned to the state’s standards, plus two rounds of Common Core tests in English and math developed by the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers (PARCC). In some grades, students also take three sets of benchmarking tests three or four times a year. In the end, third-graders, who get tested the most, take a whopping 14 standardized tests per year, in addition to “exit tickets” – teacher-generated assessments at the end of a unit of study.

Related: Young and inexperienced, a new principal tries to turn around a New Orleans charter school

Testing infuses many aspects of the school day. The walls of Hardy’s office and the teachers’ conference room are hung with posters sporting bar charts that show test results. Students and teachers talk about the test, the test day, and “reaching basic.”

Outside a third-grade classroom, a colorful hand-drawn poster names the children who have achieved the advanced, mastery, and basic levels on one test. In another classroom, a teacher has written out in magic marker a several-foot-long list of standards (4.NF.5: Express equivalent fractions and add fractions with denominators of 10 and 100) – presumably to keep his own teaching on target for the Common Core math test.

Although a vocal minority of parents whose children tend to be enrolled in more affluent schools around the country have refused to let their kids take the Common Core tests, no Sylvanie Williams families have opted out. And Hardy is predicting the final round won’t be a problem for her scholars. “They’re used to it,” she says simply.

Related: Are the Common Core tests turning out to be a big success or a resounding failure?

Early in the year, diagnostic test results helped distinguish what had been taught from what had been learned. Hardy keeps a close eye on lesson plans – teachers submit them to her each week – so she knows what material is being covered.

14: The number of standardized tests some students at Sylvanie Williams College Prep charter school in New Orleans take annually — not including frequent teacher quizzes.

By January, armed with more data, Hardy and her teachers and coaches were really poring over the test results. And that’s when the dialogue around instruction began to shift. The teachers started collaborating on how to quickly and directly backfill the specific foundational skills that students need to move forward.

“After that point,” says fourth-grade teacher Terrance Mitchell, “I think as a school we really started to see the achievement of our students begin to accelerate.”

Related: Principal in the classroom: Can New Orleans school make it work?

Although Hardy is committed to running a test-driven school, the data focus has its frustrations. Because the Common Core exams are new this year, the PARCC administrators need to perform technical calculations on the results. This means that scores on the tests will be released to Hardy after Sylvanie Williams’s school year ends – too late for teachers to use that data to course-correct.

State political leaders are maneuvering to scuttle or at least modify the use of the Common Core in Louisiana, so it’s not certain that the standards that the students are being asked to meet this year will even be around next year.

The school’s relentless focus on standards and testing reduces time for less defined but often more meaningful types of lessons – ones that help kids understand themselves, their fellow students, and the world around them. But Hardy has tried to squeeze these kinds of experiences into the school day.

In January, she took 40 students on a field trip to Selma, Ala., to join the commemorations of the 50th anniversary of the march to Montgomery. And one morning, she taught a unit on poverty in America, which included having third-, fourth-, and fifth-graders compare weekly expenses with median income for high school dropouts, college graduates, and those with a master’s degree.

Recently, a fifth-grade blackboard showed the remnants of a vibrant discussion about young black men, police, and excessive force. “Because of the demographic our children come from, many will face immense challenges and unique realities,” Hardy says.

“We need to prepare them to understand how the world will engage with them. They need to understand how to engage with it. And maybe, create the possibility that they will act as change agents in their world.”

Hardy accepts that her school, and her tenure as principal, will be evaluated largely on test scores. But she is adamant about maintaining what she sees as crucial parts of education that no test will measure.

This project is a partnership between The Christian Science Monitor and The Hechinger Report. © 2015 The Christian Science Monitor and The Hechinger Report.

Reproduction of this story is not permitted.

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