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Tennessee’s Common Core Backtrack Strands Teachers, Students

KINGSPORT, Tenn. – On a hot August day during the first week of school, Heather Hobbs, a 26-year-old teacher at Andrew Johnson Elementary School in Kingsport, Tenn., asked her third-grade class to do something she knew that they wouldn’t be able to do.

She handed out two passages, one about Eliza Scidmore, a writer and explorer whose idea it was to plant cherry blossom trees around the nation’s capital, and another about George Washington Carver, an African-American botanist born into slavery who taught poor farmers how to grow alternative crops to cotton.

Together, the texts totaled more than 1,000 words, and an attached worksheet asked the students to write an essay describing the challenges that the historical figures had faced in their lives.

The exercise was part of a practice test aligned to the Common Core state standards, a set of academic benchmarks that Tennessee adopted in 2010 and began using with success in some classrooms in the 2012-13 school year but may now abandon.

The writing prompt helped Hobbs assess her incoming students’ abilities. They performed so poorly that most of their essays couldn’t be graded.