As school years wind down, the atmosphere becomes charged with the stress of year-end testing. With the Common Core State Standards alignment looming on the horizon, this year’s exams proved even more angst-producing for educators and student alike. a quiet and relaxing spring vacation, Dowan McNair-Lee’s 8th graders return to class to find their desks in a very formal layout, much different from how they were when they left for break. Prior to spring break and the year-end testing season, McNair-Lee’s students enjoyed a clustered layout that promoted discussion and collaboration. Now, the desks sit at attention, neatly lined in forward-facing rows,

The new arrangement is the backdrop for a changed tone in the classroom as well. All year long, Ms. McNair-Lee, an English/language arts teacher at Stuart-Hobson Middle School here, has been doing what millions of teachers across the country are doing: trying to help her students master the common standards, which all but four states have adopted.

The District of Columbia school system has chosen an aggressive and comprehensive approach to implementing the standards, making major investments in resources and professional development. But like most districts, it faces many challenges as it tries to turn its vision into changed practice in the classroom.

Now, with her calendar and her clock as constant reminders, Ms. McNair-Lee takes her students on a final, headlong dive into a review unit to bolster their skills. On this sunny April day, connotation and denotation are the focus of the lesson.

Ms. McNair-Lee displays the words “home,” “house,” “residence,” and “dwelling” on the big board up front. From the class, she’s trying to coax each word’s dictionary definition and then its subjective associations, both positive and negative.

Her students see right away that the words have similar official meanings, but their connotations vary. “Home” can imply “cozy,” “comfortable,” and “loving,” the students volunteer, while “dwelling” suggests something “basic,” and “residence” suggests a place that’s “cold, with no feeling.”

The students get that part of the exercise, but they stall when they apply the idea to other examples. Ms. McNair-Lee displays book titles that all use the word “chicken,” but in very different ways, such as The Best of Chicken Cookbook and Are You Chicken? Which ones use the word’s connotative meaning and which use its denotative meaning? she asks. The class is awash in blank stares.

You all are acting like I never taught this before, the teacher thinks. What didn’t I do right the first time?

As the clock ticks away the final weeks of the instructional year, Ms. McNair-Lee holds in her mind the interim test results that indicate her students’ weakest areas in the common standards. For this class, it’s vocabulary, text structure, and citing evidence from a text to support an argument. As much as they’ve been over this stuff, these pieces are still frustratingly elusive.

Mikel Robinson, one of Ms. McNair-Lee’s 128 students, doesn’t yet show a strong grasp of the distinction between denotation and connotation, and today he’s distracted by 15 stitches under his left eye, the product of a household accident. In all his morning classes, he leaves for a while to apply cold cloths to his tender cheekbone, missing parts of the lesson.

Like many students across the country, Mikel often needs more support than is available to help him master academic expectations. And as high school draws near, he’s carrying a D in English for the third straight marking period.

His interim test results have improved a lot; on the most recent one, he outperformed his class on some questions and did well on citing textual evidence and analyzing a paragraph’s structure. He nailed the question on figures of speech. But his class grade suffers from failing to complete many assignments.

As she leads her class into the final push before the DC CAS, the district’s end-of-year test, Ms. McNair-Lee feels increasingly frazzled. She hates the emphasis on tests, and yet she sees them as one indicator of how well she’s prepared her students for high school. She wants them to do well, yet she knows the tests don’t fully capture what they know.

And she also knows that the students don’t really care how they do on the year-end tests. The scores are not factored into their grades, and results come too late to be used in the lotteries and applications that dominate the high school admissions process here.

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