After graduating from college, I spent two years teaching math at a high school in rural Mississippi. The experience was a rewarding one that invested me deeply in education, but it was also immensely frustrating, exhausting, and humbling. It wasn’t until I moved back to Nashville and began learning about policies and reforms taking place all over the country that I realized how valuable a common set of challenging standards and well-constructed assessments would have been for both me and my students.
My most significant experience within these two years was teaching Algebra I to high school upperclassmen. Algebra I was the only state math exam that was required for graduation, and most of my students were going through it for the second or third time. The standards I was given were vague, confusing, and covered a broad range of topics in very little depth. Because of the high-stakes nature of the test and the fundamental nature of algebra, I was caught the between two competing priorities – helping my students to graduate and preparing them for the future.
On a daily basis, I had to choose: teach a standard conceptually or familiarize my students with the format of the notoriously tricky Algebra I test questions. Over the course of the semester, I continuously debated between digging deeply into a few fundamental learning objectives and hitting every skill they would need in order to succeed on the exam. The results were mixed, but overall demoralizing. The students who were successful on the exam graduated with temporary, surface-level knowledge of a basic and crucial set of skills, and those who were not successful did not graduate at all.
These problems are exactly what the Common Core State Standards movement seeks to address. The new standards allow teachers to take more time with fewer topics so that students can achieve a deep and lasting understanding of knowledge and skills that will launch them towards success beyond high school. The next step is finding and implementing a quality assessment that is aligned to these standards, so that teachers are no longer serving two masters, and students and parents can be assured that preparing for the test and preparing for life are no longer at odds with each other, but essentially one goal in the same.
While high standards and quality assessments are crucial for students at all grade levels, high school teachers have a unique perspective in that the results of their successes and failures in the classroom are almost always immediate and final. I know that low standards cost my students important life skills and the higher levels of success that come along with them, and it breaks my heart to this day. By staying committed to a set of standards that are clearer, higher, and fewer and making the move to an appropriately aligned assessment, we can help to ensure that the same thing does not happen to our students here in Tennessee.