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Principal: How I know something is wrong with Common Core standards and tests

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This is the eleventh 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  served as principal of South Side High School in the Rockville Centre School District in New York for 15 years before recently retiring. 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. Ellspermann’s reply letter explained why she thinks the  Core is helping schools in her district. 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 asks Ellspermann why she thinks she needs the Core. In the sixth letter, Ellspermann responds by discussing why she opposes the opt-out movement and how the Core is working in her school.  In the seventh letter, Burris explains why she doesn’t think the Core will do for students what supporters say it will. The eighth letter, from Ellspermann, talks about why she believes all students should have the same standards. The ninth letter, from Burris, explained that she was taking early retirement because she no longer felt she could work well in a test-based system. The tenth letter, from Ellspermann, which you can read in the post below, talks about how much she and Burris have in common, and says the standards themselves are not the root of problems in education.

Here is the eleventh letter in the series, from Burris to Ellspermann, which first appeared on The Hechinger Report on July 2:

Dear Jayne,

I am writing this letter the day after my last graduation ceremony. The past week has been difficult—full of tearful goodbyes. Although I am certain that my decision to retire was the right one, leaving a school that I love so much has been very painful. But, as I said to the Class of 2015 in my address, quoting Winnie the Pooh—“how lucky I am to have something that makes saying goodbye so hard.”

Your last letter acknowledged our mutual concern about the evaluation of teachers by student test data. Even if it were a perfect measure, and it is far from perfect, the unintended consequences of using test scores in this manner would never be worth the price. Back in 1976, social scientist Donald Campbell predicted what would happen if standardized tests became high-stakes. He wrote, “When test scores become the goal of the teaching process, they both lose their value as indicators of educational status and distort the educational process in undesirable ways.” Certainly, that is a worry you and I share.

You asked what accountability system produces a bell curve in which teachers are measured against each other. It’s called the “VAM” — for value-added model — and each teacher receives a score that is generated by comparing the scores of his or her students with students across the state of Florida, who take the same test and have similar characteristics. That comparison then produces a “bell curve” because scores cluster around the average score, which is converted into the five Florida categories of teacher VAM performance. It may sound reasonable but it produces some inexplicable results where excellent teachers receive bad scores. This was the case of the 2014 Hillsborough Teacher of the Year, who was judged so bad by VAM, his score was negative! We use a similar process in New York, although growth scores are only generated for 3-8 tests.

Jayne, while we both disagree with using student test scores to evaluate teachers, I am wary when you suggest that “multiple measures” and “dashboards” are the solution. Would you be comfortable with test scores being 30 percent of a teacher’s evaluation? I would not. If using them as a metric comes at the cost of narrowing curriculum and teaching to the test, why would we want to include them at all?

I am not discounting the importance of using student achievement in assessing teacher quality and in helping teachers improve. Prior to the mandated use of scores, I used achievement results to help guide my observations, review teacher lesson plans and design professional development. I worry that vague terms like “multiple measures” lead non-educators to conclude that, if more than one test were used to produce VAM scores, or if you also included observations, using test data is sound practice.

Now back to the Common Core. I am not sure what you mean when you say that I “personified” the standards and that I believe the Common Core is “the root of the problems we are facing in education.” The Common Core is but one part of a failed reform strategy. The Common Core, teacher evaluation using student tests scores, Common Core tests, the expansion of charter schools and other disruptive change strategies were pushed by the $4.35 billion competitive grant known as Race to the Top. All are presented as interconnected parts of a school improvement plan.

I do agree that other policies associated with the Common Core have negatively impacted the implementation of the standards. I also am (and have always been) a big believer in college and career readiness as our goal. Where we disagree is that I don’t believe that the Common Core standards, even without bad policy, will do the job.

Here is an example that we in New York are living through now. The Common Core algebra test was given in early June. New York students generally take algebra in eighth grade (accelerated students) or ninth grade. Some of our very best students were in tears as they struggled to complete it. Concerns went far beyond our district. Eric Cunningham is a veteran algebra teacher from upstate New York. He wrote an email to parents explaining how difficult the test was and how illogical the curve against which the tests were scored.

First, let’s look at the level of difficulty. Eric refers to Question 24, a compound inequality problem which you can find here. Eric is correct when he says this topic was previously taught in New York’s Algebra 2/Trigonometry course, the third course in the high school sequence. Question 24 is now fair game on the Common Core algebra test, which is the first course in the high school sequence, because it tests the Common Core standard CED.A1, which you can find here.

Our students also had a lot of difficulty with Question 18 which involved a quadratic equation. The solution included a fraction. My math teacher told me that not only was the topic previously taught in Algebra 2 Trigonometry, but that the inclusion of the fraction made the question inappropriate for even the Algebra 2 course. Could the question be considered an assessment of a Common Core standard? Yes, because there are Common Core math standards that require Algebra 1 students to solve quadratic equations by completing the square.

This level of detail is necessary to help readers understand the problem. We do our students a terrible disservice when we fail to recognize the inappropriateness of many of the standards and accept them in the name of “college readiness.”

The problems with the test go beyond these two questions. Let’s look at the college readiness score bands. It is not difficult to pass the test. For a score of 65 percent, students need to get 30 of the possible 86 points—which represents getting less than 35 percent of the exam correct. Given that most of the exam is multiple choice, a good guesser who can do the simpler questions will pass. To get to the Common Core “college readiness” passing (level 4) a student must get 65 percent of the test right. That “college readiness score” will be the new score needed to graduate high school in just a few years. On the surface, that sounds reasonable. But let’s look at the outcome.

Only 48 percent of Rockville Centre first-time test takers achieved that score. That excludes students who previously took and failed the test—if they were included the percentage would be lower still.

This year South Side High School had no dropouts and our four-year graduation rate was 98 percent. Should we conclude that only about half of the graduates of my high school are college-ready, and that in the future, only 48 percent should graduate based on the results of this test?

Every other indicator contradicts that conclusion. Every year, over 70 percent of our graduates pass an International Baccalaureate exam in mathematics. When I checked last fall, 92 percent of our entire Class of 2012 was successfully enrolled in college two years after graduation. My summer survey of whether students were required to take remediation resulted in only a handful of students. All were either English language learners or students with disabilities.

So, Jayne, what should I believe? The Common Core test results, which say over half of our students are not prepared for college, or over a decade’s worth of evidence that tells me nearly all of them are? I understand that my school is well-resourced with only a 16 percent poverty rate. But surely the juxtaposition of Common Core scores with my school’s longstanding track record of producing college-ready students indicates that there is something wrong with the Common Core standards as measured by Common Core-aligned tests. It is time we move beyond the rhetoric and critically question the assumptions on which these reforms rest.

I thank you so much for your willingness to enter this dialogue with me. I have no doubt that you and I both deeply believe in school improvement and our responsibility to create well-educated, caring and thoughtful young adults. While we disagree on the value of the Common Core, my guess is that our core values are far more similar than different. Good luck to you, Jayne, and the very best to you and your wonderful school.