Principal: How Common Core Testing Hurts Disadvantaged Students

By Valerie Strauss/Washington Post


By Valerie StraussThis is the third 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.

PARCC practice tests (AP Photo/Ty Wright)
The first letter was written by Burris, a Core opponent, to Ellspermann, a Core supporter. Burris explains 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 replay letter, which you can read here, explains why she thinks the schools in her district benefit from the Common Core.

Here is the third in the series, from Burris back to Ellspermann:

Dear Jayne,

I am grateful to have the opportunity to respond to your letter. In it, you attribute my disappointment with the Common Core to poor implementation in New York State, which you contrast with Florida’s. Although New York’s experience has indeed been rocky, the problems I see go beyond the mechanical issues of implementation. I blame the standards themselves, and I am not sure from your response whether my concerns were heard.

For example, you justify the early childhood standards because your grandsons are comfortable with them. I have no worries that my four-year old granddaughter will also be fine. She attends an outstanding pre-school, and her college-educated parents have jobs that allow them to spend ample time with her. My granddaughter can describe a tide pool because she saw one in Scotland, and she can explain the differences between bison and buffalo from having visited Grand Teton National Park.

If only every child in America grew up in a financially secure home and had access to enriching activities and an excellent pre-school. Jayne, we cannot judge the appropriateness of the standards by our grandchildren’s experiences with them. I don’t think the wisdom of early childhood researchers should be easily dismissed. If they are correct, the long-term, negative effects for many of America’s children will be enormous.

Like West Port High School, our school serves a diverse population. About 16 percent of my students live in public or subsidized housing. Their life experiences are very different from my granddaughter’s, and I suspect, from your grandsons’ as well. Some children come to my district’s kindergarten classes unsure how to hold a pencil or how to count. The belief that pushing more difficult material faster on students will close the achievement gap is not supported by research about the way young children learn.

Do not misunderstand. I do not argue that poverty is destiny, or that we should lower expectations based on social class or learning differences. All students in my high school take IB English and they thrive. However, to help all children succeed we need reasonable standards in the primary grades, differentiated instruction to serve the needs of all learners, and instructional support to narrow learning gaps over time. When we begin to sort students as “on the path” to college readiness or not with unreasonable tests, we cause irreparable harm. Your state retains third graders based on standardized tests—whatever will you do now that the Common Core is in place?

I can tell you that students of color, economically disadvantaged students, and special education students disproportionately “failed” our Common Core tests, both in 2013 and in 2014. New York’s achievement gap increased. If we were to retain all third graders who scored a “1” on our Common Core tests (1 signifies below basic and 3 is proficient), New York would retain about 45 percent of black or Latino students, 75 percent of students with disabilities, and 75 percent of English language learners. Is your state prepared to do that? Given that the preponderance of research says that retention is not effective in the long-term, and is associated with increased dropout rates, would this be fair to Florida students?

Jayne, I was equally concerned by your assertion that Florida standards were “customized” by parents and educators in your state. According to this piece in The Washington Post, and confirmed in this news story, they were no more than “tweaked” and renamed. My side-by-side comparison of the Florida Standards and the Common Core confirms that. I recently read a passionate opinion piece written by a fifth-grade teacher in your district, Jeanelle Wellhoner. Ms. Wellhoner says that the Florida standards were essentially a renaming of the Common Core and she apologizes for the devastating toll Common Core math took on her students.

Apparently, at least some of her concerns are shared by your school board, which voted for a resolution to affirm the right of students to opt out of the Florida Standards Assessments. That resolution also asked that the results of these Common Core tests not be used for high-stakes decisions for students, or for teacher salaries, until 2017.

Our local school board has been very supportive of parents’ rights to opt out since the Grade 3-8 Common Core tests began. I have hundreds of students who opted out of Common Core tests in middle school who are now ninth or tenth graders in my high school. They have never questioned taking high-school tests. They and their parents understand the difference between fair and unfair assessments.

From what I am reading in the media, Florida has struggled to implement their new Common Core tests. The Miami Herald reports that students have no idea what score they will need to pass, that many districts do not have the computer capacity for online testing, and that high-stakes consequences for kids and teachers are attached to the tests, causing further concern. Last week, Common Core test were given in your state, and the news reported that some districts were pulling out due to computer problems and test security issues.

New York will give its own Common Core tests for the third time this spring. Parental opposition to those tests continues to grow. Last year 60,000 students opted out of the 3-8 tests and we expect that number to double or even triple this year. Some parents are unhappy with the Common Core. Others are dismayed by the intense test preparation and the narrowing of curriculum. The length of the tests and their level of difficulty are constant complaints, and there is a growing backlash against the use of the results of the tests to evaluate teachers.

I often wonder if things might have been different if the standards were introduced as a model for states, with no Race to the Top funds attached. I wonder if teacher evaluations and tests were not co-introduced, if our states might have carefully reexamined and implemented standards on their own. But as Mindy Kornhaber, a professor at Pennsylvania State University who has studied standards-based reforms for twenty years tells us, standards and testing are “just two sides of the same coin.” We cannot view the standards apart from the tests designed to measure them.

We are one year away from mandated implementation of the high school Common Core English Language Arts exam. I will write more about our math and English Language Arts high school concerns in my next letter, because we are conducting an impact analysis right now. Meanwhile, I hope that your first year of Common Core testing in your school has been better than the news reports. I am looking forward to hearing your impressions of it.


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