05/14/2014 09:29 am ET Updated Jul 13, 2014

How Test Prep Is Done in One Washington Heights Charter School

The new state math tests were given across New York the week of April 28, and at least one charter school in Manhattan's Washington Heights was more than prepared.

Teachers at The Equity Project middle school had incorporated test preparation materials into their curriculum since last fall, accelerating the process in recent weeks as test day approached.

Beginning at 8 a.m. in Derrick Harrison's sixth grade math class last April, students stomped their feet and clapped their hands to the music of Queen's "We will, we will, rock you... rock you."

Class at the middle school charter on Audubon Avenue and 193 Street had kicked off with one musical refrain or another like this for the last month.

Sixth grader Ronel Pena said that the music snaps him to attention for the upcoming exam. "Mr. Harrison is one of my favorite teachers," said Pena. "I will do good on the exam."

This was no ordinary Monday.

The state math test for sixth graders was coming in two days. This was the second year students took these particular tests that include Common Core ideas like critical problem solving and writing across the disciplines.

The school had set its own bar high, scoring a grade "B" in student performance last year and looking to up its score to an "A" this year. Its reading and math scores last year had catapulted the school into the top 10 percent.

The enthusiasm in the room was palpable and had been building long before this late April day. Just after the New Year, Harrison had begun a daily regimen of test preparation specifically geared toward readying students for the exams.

Common Core is a set of national standards adopted by governors in 48 states that includes rich college and career ready materials for students from kindergarten through grade 12. The standards emphasize more complex reading materials earlier in a child's education.

In math, emphasis is on applied knowledge and written explanations of their work.

The tests have attracted a rising chorus of criticism among other educators and parents across New York City. Many staged street protests this spring against what they called poor and confusing test questions associated with Common Core curriculum.

Others believe that testing itself has become over emphasized. "Our kids are assessed to death," said a school official at George Washington High School, next door to TEP.

By contrast, teachers at TEP have embraced the upcoming tests as a welcome chance to move away from drilling facts into more complex learning.

"Drilling may improve procedural fluency," said Andom Ghebreghiorgis, a 7th grade math teacher, "but it won't help students improve their logical reasoning or critical thinking." He helps students explore concepts behind the mathematical formulas, placing them in real world scenarios.

Students at TEP learn math through examples such as reasoning out how to pay babysitting fees or cut trees into parts.

Harrison has embedded some Common Core kinds of questions into his homework assignments since the fall, so students would know what to expect on the upcoming test.

Harrison explained that all of his classroom material incorporates principles included in the new standards. He is an avid user of Engage NY, a one-stop-shop website for all Common Core questions and examples. He also researches the most up to date and enriching works for his students.

In addition, he has tried to make test preparation fun, by developing games and competitions aligned with the popular series, the Hunger Games. The students accumulate points and are ranked from the top to lowest scores.

Students strive to overtake each other by upping their math skills every week through hard work and focus on practice exams. Scores are kept on one of the classrooms blackboard to view progress.

In one class, Harrison opened with 15 minutes devoted to a timed game of name-that-integer. Students would pick up their pencils in anticipation of answering five problem sets in under five minutes. "Are you all ready, make sure that you focus," said Harrison.

Harrison sauntered around the classroom encouraging students and making sure that they remained on task. Students would not receive this type of attention come test day. Harrison was conditioning them to focus on the exam. Full class review followed.

By April, class had evolved into full-on state exam review sessions with packets entitled, "New York Mathematics Rehearsal." Questions ran the gamut from ratios, integers, and proportional relationships, among others.

Directions on the board said 10 minutes were allotted for Set A, followed by 5 minutes for Pair 'N Share and 10 minutes of review.

Set A consisted of about five questions about values on a graph, ratio interpretations and fractions. Pair 'N Share was a student favorite. That's when they worked as a team to accumulate points in the class competition.

Jonathan Hernandez, a top student in Harrison's class, wore his success proudly. On the back of his t-shirt, written within a large blue star, it read "Mathematician of the Month."

Hernandez had accumulated the most points in classroom competition alongside a fellow classmate for the previous month.

Last year after New York launched its first round of Common Core exams, statewide student scores fell dramatically in math from 65 percent proficiency down to 31 percent.

Similarly, statewide reading fell from 51 to 31 percent. These numbers confirmed the fears of many educators who were reluctant to embrace Common Core standards in New York.

According to a school official at TEP, the test was more rigorous and it required more literary awareness as well as the ability to follow multiple steps to reach the final response.

Governor Andrew Cuomo recently conceded that the standards were imperfect and created a group to explore changes. Though he is not a critic, the fact that the governor referred to Common Core as "flawed" has given detractors leverage to criticize.

TEP is one school that has gone the opposite route, away from resisting the changes.
"This week will be the chance to show not me, not the school, but the state and the world how ready you are (for the test)," said Harrison to his 6th grade math students the end of April.

One strategy he used was taking test questions from the "On Core Math" book designed by the state. After-school tutoring provided by teachers, local high school and college students was available to any student who showed up.

Still, even in the test-friendly atmosphere of TEP, some are still skeptical of whether better tests will equal more knowledge.

"If you continue weighing an elephant," said one TEP official, "it does not change its weight."