In this  Feb. 12, 2015, photo, sixth-grade teacher Carrie Young, back center, helps students with an exercise on their laptops as they practice for the the Common Core State Standards Test in her classroom at Morgan Elementary School South in Stockport, Ohio. (AP Photo/Ty Wright)

This is the sixth in a continuing series of letters between two award-winning school principals, one who likes the Common Core State Standards and the other who doesn’t. The debate over the Common Core State Standards has become so polarized that it is hard to get people who disagree to have reasonable conversations about it. The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news Web site focused on inequality and innovation in education, is hosting a conversation between Carol Burris of New York and Jayne Ellspermann of Florida (in a format that Education Week once used with Diane Ravitch and Deborah Meier as the authors).  The Report’s editors as well as both principals have given me permission to republish each letter.

Burris has served as principal of South Side High School in the Rockville Centre School District in New York since 2000. In 2010, she was recognized by the School Administrators Association of New York State as their Outstanding Educator of the Year, and in 2013, she was recognized as the New York State High School Principal of the Year. Ellspermann is principal of West Port High School in Ocala, Florida.  She has served as a principal in elementary, middle, and high schools for the past 24 years and is the 2015 Principal of the Year for the National Association of Secondary School Principals.

The first letter was written by Burris, a Core opponent, to Ellspermann, a Core supporter. Burris explained why she once liked the Core but changed her mind after New York State schools began to implement them several years ago. You can read her letter to Ellspermann here. Ellspermann’s reply letter, which you can read here, explained why she thinks the schools in her district benefit from the Common Core. In the third letter, Burris explains why she thinks Core testing hurts disadvantaged students. The fourth, by Ellspermann, says that critics should not blame the Common Core standards for bad implementation and she writes why she likes the English Language Arts emphasis on reading text rather than allowing students to rely on personal experience. In the fifth letter, Burris asked Ellspermann why she thinks she needs the Core. This is the sixth, from Ellspermann.

Dear Carol,

We are finishing our English Language Arts (ELA) testing… I am so proud of our students and teachers. They have been positive and focused during the testing. We have not had one student opt out. Teachers are confident in our students’ performance and students feel their daily instruction has prepared them well. We are moving into our math assessments for the next few weeks and I will let you know how that goes.

Our state has been deep in discussion regarding the new assessments. In response to concerns about test validity, state leaders have agreed to a full review of the assessments before the results are used for teacher evaluations or school grades. New limits to ensure that we do not spend more than 5 percent of our instructional time on state testing have been established and the use of test results in educator evaluations has been reduced from 50 percent to 33 percent.

Carol, I have been following the opt-out movement in your state. The Washington Post indicated as many as 14 percent of the students in the state New York have opted out of testing.

The objections voiced are in protest to high-stakes testing, the loss of instructional time, and against using the test results to evaluate teachers. But where is the evidence that Common Core is responsible for all this?

I have pulled a couple of the Common Core ELA anchor standards for the purpose of our conversation.

  • Read closely to determine what the text says explicitly and to make logical inferences from it; cite specific textual evidence when writing or speaking to support conclusions drawn from the text.
  • Interpret words and phrases as they are used in a text, including determining technical, connotative, and figurative meanings, and analyze how specific word choices shape meaning or tone.
  • Integrate and evaluate content presented in diverse media and formats, including visually and quantitatively, as well as in words.

Recently, I had a discussion about Common Core with several university level educational leaders who expressed the need for students to be better prepared for college: to read and write in a more academic manner, to make logical inferences, and to cite specific evidence from the text to support their conclusions. Their statements validated our decision to adopt the Common Core standards in our schools.

We have worked hard to make sure our community understands the Florida standards by providing tools and training for our teachers, students, and parents. For example, schools in our state hold Parent Math Nights, where students show their parents how they are learning math. This allows parents to see Common Core in action and transforms them into partners and supporters of the standards.

The Florida Association of School Administrators launched an app called A.V.E. for Success that shares information about the Florida standards through videos, power points, note sheets, and other resources. It provides parents and students with the same tools that teachers use, strengthening the home-school connection.

I read with sadness the part in your letter about the two students lamenting, “I don’t think this test really measures if I am smart.” The tests students are taking today are designed to determine if students can think critically. If students are led to believe that tests are there to validate their intelligence, they have been misinformed. We do not need to design assessments to help students feel good about themselves. We need our assessments to show us if our students can solve problems, describe how they solved the problem, analyze information from a variety of mediums and apply what they have learned from their analysis.

Our students need to be prepared for the world that they are going to live in, not the one that we live in today. We need to ensure that all students are ready for college and a career. I support the Common Core because it challenges our students to think. My teachers support the Common Core because they have seen its positive impact on the performance of our students regardless of their socioeconomic background. The standards teach our students not to stop at the answer, but to continue to explain and justify it. It gives meaning to learning by giving students an opportunity to personalize their comprehension.

While we feel confident about the direction we have taken with Florida standards, we anxiously await the results of the state tests. It is nothing new to have course standards; however, the political climate that has surrounded the tests has polarized our profession.

As the opt-out fever continues in your state, I wonder about the impact this movement will have for the future of assessments. Where will the line be drawn on what will be assessed and what will not be assessed?

Jayne