Here’s the latest post from award-winning Principal Carol Burris of South Side High School in New York, who for more than a year on this blog has chronicled test-driven reform in her state (here, and here and here and here, for example). Burris was named New York’s 2013 High School Principal of the Year by the School Administrators Association of New York and the National Association of Secondary School Principals, and in 2010,  tapped as the 2010 New York State Outstanding Educator by the School Administrators Association of New York State. She is the co-author of the New York Principals letter of concern regarding the evaluation of teachers by student test scores. It has been signed by more than 1,535 New York principals and more than 6,500 teachers, parents, professors, administrators and citizens. You can read the letter by clicking here. 

By Carol Burris

The New York Common Core test results are the fruit of a poisonous tree — what should be useful evidence of student learning is, instead, data without value.  Commissioner John King refers to the Common Core test results as  “baseline data.”  Producing baseline data was never the intent.  Chancellor Merryl Tisch said that if we educators were not prepared for the Common Core, we were “living under a rock.”  Since the results were published, however, her tone has changed.  At a recent public forum, Tisch remarked,  “We need to do a great job communicating why these new test scores that we’ve just seen are not an indicator that there’s been no learning or teaching going on.” If one muddles through the double negative, the takeaway is that the results of the tests for third-to-eighth graders are meaningless.

They may be meaningless, but they are not inconsequential.  The results expanded the black/white achievement gap.  In 2012, there was a 12-point black/white achievement gap between average third grade English Language Arts scores, and a 14-point gap in eighth grade ELA scores.  This year, the respective gaps grew to 19 and 25 points.  In 2012, there was an 8-point gap between black/white third-grade math scores and a 13-point gap between eighth-grade math scores.  The respective gaps are now 14 and 18 points.  The gap expansion extended to other groups as well. The achievement gap between White and Latino students in eighth-grade ELA grew from 3 points to 22 points.  Students who already believe they are not as academically successful as their more affluent peers, will further internalize defeat.

The percentage of black students who scored “below basic” in third-grade English Language Arts rose from 15.5 percent to 50 percent. In seventh-grade math, black students labeled “below basic” jumped from 16.5 percent to a staggering 70 percent. Nearly one-third of all New York children scored “below basic” across the grade level tests. Students often score “below basic” because they guess or give up. Principals and teachers cannot get accurate feedback on student learning.  Although Ms. Tisch may say that “this does not mean there’s no learning going on,” what will parents think? Students will now need to be placed in remediation, or Academic Intervention Services.  Schools that serve a predominately minority, poor student body will be fiscally overwhelmed as they try to meet the needs of so many children.  Those who truly need the additional support will find that support is watered-down.

Experienced educators understand why the reform agenda is not working. Reformers “wish” their unrealistic goals and expectations to be attainable, and then “whip” educators and schools using test scores, in order to make their wishes come true.  But the “wish and whip” strategy of school reform simply does not work. Michael Fullan, a scholar of school reform, has continually warned that test scores and punishment cannot be successful strategies to transform schools.

The time to “reform the reform” is long overdue. The first step in that process will be a difficult one for reformers to accept. They must re-examine their belief that college readiness is achieved by attaining a score on a test, and its corollary — that it is possible to create college readiness score thresholds for eight year olds.  It is, at its essence, an absurd assumption that is wasting a fortune in tax dollars while leading us down a fool’s path.

As I explained in my last blog post, the cut scores for Common Core tests are based, in great part, on finding correlations with other tests’ so-called “college readiness” scores. Here are three reasons why this strategy is folly.

1. Every “college readiness” standard is arbitrary, and each yields its own percentage of students who are college ready. Depending on which criterion you choose for your external benchmark, the scores vary. Below are the College Board’s SAT and the ACT benchmarks followed by New York’s chosen benchmarks. The percentages in the last column are national figures.



Score chosen by:

College readiness score


% of test takers


College Board

500 Reading

500 Math

65% probability of B- GPA


ACT English Composition and Math


18 on ACT English/22 on ACT Math

75% chance of C or higher in course




560 Reading

75% chance of B- college English


(NYS 25%)



530 Math

60% chance of C+ in college math


(NYS 36%)

In short, “college readiness” indicators are whatever policymakers want them to be. They are constructs, not absolute truths. If you change the probability, or the college grade, you change the percentage of students who are ‘college ready’, and, in the case of New York State, the percentage of students you consider to be proficient in 3-8 testing.  Despite years of resistance over validity concerns, NAEP recently came out with 12th grade National Assessment of Educational Progress “college ready” benchmark.   How did they create it? They aligned NAEP scores with the college-readiness indicators of other tests such as the SAT and ACT.  It is all very neat and predictable.

2.  Test scores are not the best indicator of college success. Research consistently shows that the rigor of curriculum and student GPA are far better indicators of college success than are test scores. See here and here.  Perhaps that is the greatest irony of all—we chase scores while other in-school factors such as how far a student progresses in mathematics, or the effort students put into their GPA, are far more important factors in college success.

3. Anchoring proficiency rates to SATs will inevitably result in the measurement of family wealth.  The relationship between student SAT scores and family affluence has been well established.  Take a look at the approximate average income that is correlated with the ‘College Readiness” scores chosen by New York.  The predictive value (R2) of income to SAT scores is .95.




CCR score chosen by





560 Reading




540 Math


Strong correlations have also been found between SAT scores and parental education levels.  Does that mean we should create a college readiness index called “Who are your parents?”  Of course not.  It is not income per se that results in the higher SAT scores; it is all of the things that high incomes can buy—excellent pre-schools, good health care, tutors, homes in well-resourced school districts, homes in safe neighborhoods, summer enrichment etc.  When we chase test scores, rather than the factors that contribute to higher test scores, we chase our tails.

Does good teaching matter?  It certainly does, but not enough to effect the change we really need to improve our schools.  Teacher quality accounts for about 10 percent to 15 percent of the variance in student learning.  Unless we level the playing field between rich and poor we can never achieve college and career readiness for all. A just and good society, especially when it is also the richest in the world, can give its poorest children well resourced schools, excellent pre-schools and child-care, extended learning time, and summer enrichment.

And that is why educators across the country are boiling over in anger and resentment. They have become the proverbial scapegoat set out in the desert with the sins of a society in denial on its back. Of course billionaires and hedge-fund managers adore these new “reforms”—they tell them what they want to hear. The myth that “three effective teachers in a row” will make it all better, removes the responsibility and the culpability.   Reformers can put tax deductible dollars on the table, take out the tux and gown for the fundraiser, and claim they are “all about the kids”.  And with those dollars they fashion reforms that will not threaten their lifestyles, the private schools to which they send their own children, or the segregated neighborhoods in which they live.

In the coming months, the fruits of the poisonous tree will be much examined, sorted and discussed.  But the fruit is rotten and parents are warning their children not to bite. The opposition to testing grows and soon the tree will finally fall.