Common Core, in 9-Year-Old Eyes

He could have written about the green toy truck he kept hidden in his room, a reminder of Haiti, a place he did not yet fully understand.

He might have mentioned the second-place trophy he had won for reciting a psalm in French at church — “le bonheur et la grâce m’accompagneront tous les jours de ma vie...” — his one and only award.

He could have noted his dream of becoming an engineer or an architect, to one day have a house with a pool and a laboratory where he would turn wild ideas about winged cars and jet packs into reality.

But on a windy April afternoon, as the first real sun of spring fell on Public School 397 in Brooklyn, and empty supermarket bags floated through the sky, Chrispin Alcindor’s mind was elsewhere.

His teacher, Trisha Matthew, had asked the 13 boys and six girls in her fourth-grade class to write self-portrait poems. Some students compared themselves to red foxes and resplendent stars, loud pianos and LeBron James. Chrispin took a different approach.

“I am a 9-year-old,” he began, “who struggles with math.”

Chrispin had reason to worry. New York’s state exams were two days away, and he was having difficulty dividing large numbers and deciphering patterns. He had once been a model student — the fastest counter in the first grade, his teachers said. But last year, in the confusion of a new and more difficult set of academic standards known as the Common Core, he had failed the state tests in English and math, placing him near the bottom of his class.

The Common Core, the most significant change to American public education in a generation, was hailed by the Obama administration as a way of lifting achievement at low-performing schools. After decades of rote learning, children would become nimble thinkers equipped for the modern age, capable of unraveling improper fractions and drawing connections between Lincoln and Pericles.

The standards have recently become a political flash point. Lawmakers in some states have suggested the Common Core undermines local control of education. Parents and teachers have raised questions about whether students are ready for a new wave of standardized tests, after precipitous drops in test scores in New York and Kentucky, the first two states to adopt Common Core exams. Others have argued the new benchmarks are onerous and elitist.

But whether the Common Core achieves its promise will ultimately depend on schools like P.S. 397 and children like Chrispin, and whether they rise to the rigor of the new demands.

At P.S. 397, about 85 percent of the nearly 350 students failed state exams last year, the school’s worst performance on record. New York City gave the school a C on its annual report card, citing its poor test scores; it even lagged behind similar schools serving large numbers of poor children. Parents were distraught, and staff members wept.

On that April day, Chrispin was determined. As one of the smallest children in the fourth grade, he had grown accustomed to being underestimated. With the right luck, he thought, he would earn high marks when test scores came back in August. “If I don’t pass the test,” he said, “I will feel miserable and never come out of my room.”

Maybe, Chrispin thought, he would score so high that he would win a trophy. He imagined the scene: walking across the stage at graduation in sunglasses and white sneakers, claiming his award and basking in the applause of the entire school.

At the very least, Chrispin resolved, he did not want to find out in June that he was so far behind that he would have to go to summer school. In his mind, it was a jail, a grave place devoid of friends, family and his Xbox 360. He returned to his poem:

I take my own path