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The Answer Sheet: Why Test-Based School Reform Isn’t Working - By the Numbers


Award-winning Prinicipal Carol Burris of South Side High School in New York has been exposing the problems with New York’s botched school reform effort for a long time on this blog. (You can read some of her work here, herehere,  here, and here.) In the following post she looks at irrefutable data to show that the test-based reforms are taking public education down the wrong road. 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 thousands of principals teachers, parents, professors, administrators and citizens. You can read the letter by clicking here. 


By Carol Burris

There is an adage that says: “If you don’t know where you are going, any road will take you there.” That is certainly true.

It is equally true that if you know where you want to go, but continue to take the wrong road, you will soon get hopelessly lost.

The first is an accurate description of reform without any standards.

The second, however, is an accurate description of test-based reforms. Nowhere is this more evident than in New York State, where the chosen road is leading to a very dark place.

The New York Board of Regents determined that the first class required to achieve “college ready” scores on the math and English Regents exams will be students who start ninth-grade in September of 2018 (the Class of 2022). It was a clever response designed to make it appear that implementation was delayed when it was not. The Common Core high school exams still begin this June, however, the Regents had never determined which class would have to pass with a 75 in English and an 80 in math. The present passing score is 65.

The new passing scores that the Regents chose are presently known as the “aspirational measure.” These scores were derived from a relationship between the Math A and English Regents scores of New York City public school graduates and their grades at CUNY. Because the New York State Education Department has been reporting the percentage of students who meet this “aspirational measure,” we can use last year’s rates to estimate what the imposition of these scores on graduation rates will be.

If these scores were used last year, the New York four-year graduation rate would have dropped from 74 percent to 34 percent. But even that awful rate would not be evenly spread across student groups. A close look demonstrates just how devastating the imposition of the Common Core scores would be for our minority, disadvantaged and ELL students, as well as our students with disabilities.

The Percentage of 2013 4-Year Grads who earned the Common Core “pass” scores (required for students who enter high school in 2018)

Low SES (socioeconomic status) students – 20 percent

Students with Disabilities – 5 percent

English Language Learners – 7 percent

Black students – 12 percent

Hispanic students – 16 percent

Even if we project 10 years forward, given the expected incremental increases in test scores, far too many students will not earn a high school diploma. A full doubling (and in some cases a tripling) of rates for the above groups of students would not approach an acceptable outcome. We would be taking already too low graduation rates and making them far worse.

We have further evidence of what is to come by looking at the troubling expansion of learning gaps that appeared in last year’s 3-8 Common Core testing. That expansion was documented on The Answer Sheet here.

The proportion of students who were labeled Below Standard[1] in skills ballooned. A full 75 percent of students with disabilities scored Below Standard on the Grade 5 English Language Arts Common Core tests and 78 percent scored Below Standard on the 7th grade math test. Eighty-four percent of English Language learners score Below Standard on the English Language Arts test and 78 percent scored the same on the 7th grade math exam.

To see how the gap has grown between groups of students who scored far from the state passing score, see the chart below.

burrischart1Although I chose Grade 8 scores for comparison, the gaps are similar across all grade levels .

No one would have predicted that the Common Core tests would close the achievement gaps, however, there is no defensible reason why those gaps should have grown. Every policymaker and researcher concerned with equity should question what exactly these new tests measure.

If we are to find the right road, we must be willing to challenge the assumptions that drive the wrong reforms. Test-based reforms assume that high test scores will result in more students becoming college and career ready. But is that true?

Massachusetts’ students consistently score at the top on the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) exams. In addition, Massachusetts’ standards (the ones it had before the state adopted the Common Core State Standards) were long held up as a model of rigor for the nation.  In contrast, New York’s former standards were consistently criticized as being too low, and its NAEP scores hover around the middle of the pack. Both states have many community colleges that are open enrollment, which allows anyone who has completed high school or obtained a GED to take courses. Both states send about the same percentage of students (low 70s) directly from high school to college.

If high standards coupled with high scores make students more college ready, it is reasonable to expect that Massachusetts’ graduates would have greater success in college than those of New York. But that is not the case. The information below was obtained here. It represents 2010 data.

carolburrischart2Despite what one might expect, New York has slightly better success. Over an eight-year period, both states achieved 6 percentage points of growth in the four-year college completion metric, despite having very different standards.

There is more evidence. A study by the National Association of College Admission Counseling (NACAC) looked at the college performance of eight cohorts of students from 33 colleges and universities. These 33 institutions do not require students to submit standardized test scores for admission. The conclusions of that study are relevant and important. The findings were that student college success was better predicted by high school grades than by test scores.

From that report:

 Students with strong HSGPAs generally perform well in college, despite modest or low testing. In contract, students with weak HSGPAs earn lower college Cum GPAs and graduate at lower rates, even with markedly stronger testing. A clear message: hard work and good grades in high school matter and they matter a lot.

This should come as no surprise. Student grades reflect not only classroom learning, but also work ethic, cooperation and attendance —the stuff that really matters for later life success. How do we increase those behaviors while using sensible accountability systems—that is the right road to travel.

If our destination is to make all of our students college and career ready, we need to open doors for students, not shut them with sorting and punitive testing. Creating unreasonable graduation standards that will marginalize and exclude our most at-risk students while we implement untested standards linked to high-stakes testing, will not get us where we want to be. It is a road on which too many students will be lost.

[1] Below Standard  (1) is the lowest of the 4 score subgroups. Proficiency (3) is considered ‘passing’ .

[2] Because the state does not report results for general education and non-disadvantaged populations, I estimated results using proportional rate data.

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Carol C. Burris

Carol Corbett Burris became Executive Director of the Network for Public Education Foundation in August 2015, after serving as principal of South Side High School...

Valerie Strauss

Valerie Strauss is the Washington Post education writer.