Are Georgia School Superintendent Candidates Willing to Oppose the Common Core & High-Stakes Tests?

Creative Commons School of Neon Fusiller School" by Malcoml Browne is licensed  under CC BY-ND 2.0.
Creative Commons School of Neon Fusiller” by Malcolm Browne is licensed under CC BY-ND 2.0.

Dear Candidates for Georgia School Superintendent,

Today, I want to challenge you to not only oppose Georgia’s adoption of the Common Core State Standards (CCSS), but also the use of high-stakes tests such as the CRCT. In this post, I’ll offer some facts you can use to discuss why to oppose the CCSS.  In the next post, we’ll give reasons why high-stakes tests need to abolished.

For nearly two decades, Standards and high-stakes testing have dominated teaching and learning in every Georgia public school.  I’ve shown in earlier posts, that standards are barriers to student learning, and if teachers are not given autonomy over the use of standards, then they tend to impede innovation, creativity, and teaching that focuses on the needs of children and youth.  Communication skills, problem solving, team work, and innovation are the kinds of experiences that are important to students now, and will be in the future.  The standards in the context of high-stakes tests impedes these goals.

Common Core State Standards

It’s time, however, to break these connections, at least for standards and high-stakes, and look for different ways to help students learn.

Making a one-size fits all curriculum for every student in Georgia makes little sense. We know that the “real” curriculum for our students is what happens in their classrooms with their peers and teachers. The curriculum should not be determined by non-educators from a highly financed organization (as was the Common Core State Standards), but should be an effort carried out by teachers and educators–Georgia has a top-notch teaching force, and some of the countries major universities.

Figure 1 shows the mathematics achievement level of Georgia students compared to students across the nation using National Assessment of Education Progress (NAEP) tests. Note that we have an upward trend in mathematics achievement in Georgia as well as the nation.   Figure 2 is a table showing the percentage of 8th grade students meeting or exceeding state standards on CRCT tests in math.  From the data presented in Figures 1 and 2, the trend in 8th grade mathematics achievement, as measured by the NAEP tests, and the state of Georgia CRCT, is positive, showing steady improvement.  If we look at results in math at other grade levels, as well as reading and science scores, the trends are similar.

Figure 1. NAEP 8th Grade Math Achievement At or Above Basic for Georgia compared to the United States 2000 - 2013. Source: Kids Count data center, Annie E. Casey Foundation.
Figure 1. NAEP 8th Grade Math Achievement At or Above Basic for Georgia compared to the United States 2000 – 2013. Source: Kids Count data center, Annie E. Casey Foundation.
Figure 2. Georgia 8th Grade Students Meeting or Exceeding State Standards on CRCT Tests in Math, 2006 - 2012
Figure 2. Georgia 8th Grade Students Meeting or Exceeding State Standards on CRCT Tests in Math, 2006 – 2012.  Source: Kids Count Data Center, Annie E. Casey Foundation

Georgia’s state standards did not result in a tailspin of student achievement.  The Common Core State Standards, which were implemented a year ago, have not resulted in any major variation in testing.  In fact, the variation in test scores that we see not only in Georgia, but nearly all states (Massachusetts is an exception) is within the limits of what we would expect.  Figure 3 compares the average scores in 8th grade math achievement based on NAEP tests between seven states, including Georgia.

Using the control chart approach of W. Edwards Deming and Donald Wheeler and David Chambers (which I learned from Ed Johnson), we see in Figure 3 that for over a decade the achievement scores in most of these states and District of Columbia fall within expected limits.  In fact for most of these Any variation for these states, except for Massachusetts, is NOT due to any special cause (new curriculum, new standards, using high-stakes tests), but are simply what we expect in a system that is operating as it should.  In general we can conclude that education in these states is not a failure, but schools are doing what we expect them to do.  The continuous improvement that we see in the scores is not due to any innovation or special cause, but is simply the result of the way the education system works.  And it doesn’t matter whether we look at scores from suburban communities, and compare them to urban environments.

As a candidate, you will hear the oft mentioned phrase, that “America’s schools are failing and they need to be reformed.”  In fact, this phrase has been repeated so often, that in a recent survey over 70% of parents agree that schools were failing.  But over 80% said that the school their children attended was doing very well.

You need to use facts to show that our schools are not failing, and help your potential constituents realize that they’ve been sold down the river that America’s schools are failing.  They are not.


Figure 2. 8th Grade Math as a System. All states, except for Massachusetts fall within the framework of Upper and Lower Control Limits.  Any variation within this zone is due to system causes, and not special causes.  Source: The Annie E. Casey Foundation, KIDS COUNT Data Center,
Figure 3. 8th Grade Math as a System. All states, except for Massachusetts fall within the framework of Upper and Lower Control Limits. Any variation within this zone is due to system causes, and not special causes. Source: The Annie E. Casey Foundation, KIDS COUNT Data Center,

Schools, They Aren’t Failing

You might ask, what about urban schools.  Are our urban schools failing?  The fact is, there are lots of people who will tell you that schools in urban environments are failing, and what they need is help from charter management companies, and temp teacher preparation organizations such as Teach for America and the New Teacher Project.

They need none of this.

Take a look at Figure 4.  It’s an analysis done by Ed Johnson using data over the past decade comparing 21 city school districts, with the Atlanta Public Schools (APS) and the Austin Independent School District (AISD) highlighted in green and red, respectively.   As you can see in the graph, there is variation in math NAEP test scores over the ten-year period.  The variation we see is consistent.  There are not wide swings in the data.  Indeed, all the points of measurement fall within statistical control limits.


Figure 2.  Systemic Story of NAEP 8th Grade Math Scores on the TUDA Assessment for 21 Districts, including Atlanta and Austin.  This graph shows 8th grade math as a system.
Figure 4. Systemic Story of NAEP 8th Grade Math Scores on the TUDA Assessment for 21 Districts, including Atlanta and Austin. This graph shows 8th grade math as a system.


If there is any truth to this kind of data, there is no need to radically change the system.  But, as Deming and others have found, there is always the need for continuous improvement of the system.  If we want to improve schooling, say in Atlanta, we need to improve the system, not “turn it around.”

But the mantra you will hear is that we need to close schools, or turn the school around by firing the school principal and most of the staff, and then replace them with a new principal, and new teachers who are inexperienced, uncertified, and will only stay there for 2 years.  If you are elected State School Superintendent, you will find that there are questionable relationships among the Georgia Department of Education, Teach for America, the New Teacher Project, and charter management companies.

Don’t fall into the “our schools are failing” trap.

Improving Schools

As a candidate for the top job in education, you surely want to figure ways to help Georgia school districts improve their schools.  Adopting the Common Core State Standards will not improve our schools.

We want, what Ed Johnson explains, continuation improvement.

How do we do this?  First, we need to act on the idea that education is a human system.  It’s about people.  It’s about parents sending their students to schools enjoy learning, and not to be there to serve the state by simply being a number, and someone who is required to take tests throughout their school days.  If you ask parents what they like about their children’s school, they always talk about how their children are treated and accepted, and helped to learn.  They talk about the kind of communication among their children’s peers and teachers.

Improving schools means we need to think differently and bring to the front what we know about successful organizations.  In a recent post, I discussed some steps that we should take that have a greater likelihood of establishing an environment that will result in continuous improvement.

  1. Put high confidence in teachers and principals and learning.  The focus on meaningful learning must be at the school level.  Superintendents need to get out-of-the-way, stop micro-managing, and entrust education to well prepared teaching staff.
  2. Create a systemic environment which encourages teachers and students to try new ideas and approaches.  Encourage principals to work with teachers to push for curiosity, imagination and creativity in the classroom, and make that the focus of learning.
  3. Fill classrooms with well experienced and well-educated teachers who are not only knowledgeable in the content, but more importantly understand how to teach and how to experiment with different pedagogies.
  4. Empower principals to be the leaders of change, not superintendents.  Superintendents are too far away from the day-to-day life of students to encourage the kind of creative teaching that can be supported by principals.
  5. Teachers should have masters degrees in education and be knowledgeable in their field of teaching.  Reliance on uncertified and inexperienced teachers will in the long run lead to failure.

In the next post, I will provide evidence to support the second thing that I would like you to oppose, and that is the use of high-stakes tests.  High-stakes tests are the biggest impediment to real improvement of schooling for students.  I hope you’ll check out the next post.

In Spite of the “System,” Urban Teachers Have a Record of Success

In spite of the “System” the evidence is that urban teachers have a record of success, not one that is spiraling down.  The present state of reform of American education is based on the idea that American students are doing poorly, and this will lead to disastrous economic consequences, and the loss of American’s place in the global economic competition.

But, education (for our students) should not be a competition.  There is no need to have winners and losers as outcomes of the school experience.  Education is about learning, and in an environment that has as its core belief that learning is the fundamental goal of schooling.  Students are living in the present, and their school experience should be based on their lives now, and should not be based on furthering the economic prosperity of society.  Schooling should not be based on job training, career readiness or college entry.  It should be based on fostering the creative and innovative aspects of youth, and create school as a learning environment designed to help students learn to collaborate, work with others to solve problems, and engage in content from the arts and the sciences that has personal meaning.

We’ve been told that urban education in America needs to be saved by pouring advise and money from the élite and influential corporations and philanthropic groups.  The problem is that these groups are focused on only one set of outcomes that all come down to increasing student academic performance measured by high-stakes examinations.

I want to show here that urban teachers have held their own for the past decade and half in spite of the problems they face in their schools day-to-day.  They not only have held their own, but the evidence shows that academic performance of their students (in mathematics at the 8th grade) in the example below has slowly but surly increased as shown in Figure 1.  As you can see, in Atlanta, students at the 25th, 50th and 75th percentile increased performance on NAEP tests given from 2003 through 2013.

Figure 1. Atlanta NAEP 8th Grade Mathematics Scores for Selected Percentiles 2003 - 2013.
Figure 1. Atlanta NAEP 8th Grade Mathematics Scores for Selected Percentiles 2003 – 2013.

Reading and Math in Urban Schools

Take a look at the next four figures (Figures 2 – 5).  They were compiled by Mr. Ed Johnson in his study of the NAEP Trial Urban District Assessment (TUDA).  Johnson, who is a student W. Edwards Deming, examined the TUDA results through a Deming Lens.  A Deming Lens means that to understand the behavior of a system, one must look at the system.  Breaking down a system into its parts (goals, policies, finances, curriculum, teachers, administrators, parents, directors) loses one’s ability to understand the system.

Each of the graphs below shows the behavior of these four systems over ten years.  You will notice that there is variation in the achievement scores of students in reading (grades 4 and 8) and mathematics (grades 4 and 8) from one testing period to the next.  But the variation is within upper and lower limits that would be expected in each system.

Causes of Variation in Scores

According to W. Edwards Deming 94% of the variation is due to the nature of the system, not the people who work in or make the system work.  Only 6% are attributable to special causes.  (W. Edwards Deming. The New Economics for Industry, Government, Education (p. 33). Kindle Edition).

As you look over the graphs you will see ONLY FOUR instances where the variation in scores lies outside the Upper Control Limit (UCL), and then only in 4th grade reading  Examples include: Charlotte, 2009, Austin, 2011, Charlotte, 2011, and Hillsborough, 2011.  Except for these four instances, all the variation is due to the nature of the system.

Figure 2. Location of Cities in the Trial Urban District Assessment; Gold triangle-higher than large city; Circle--not different; Blue triangle-lower than large city. Source: Nations Report Card
Figure 2. Location of Cities in the Trial Urban District Assessment; Gold triangle-higher than large city; Circle–not different; Blue triangle-lower than large city. Source: Nations Report Card.  Click on Map for more details.

The graphs below plot reading and math scores for 21 school urban school districts.  Mr. Johnson highlighted Atlanta (in red) and DC Public Schools (purple).  As you can note in the following graphs, achievement scores in reading and math for Atlanta and DC Public Schools fell within the Upper and Lower Control limits.  There is no radical change in scores, either up or down.  It appears that the teachers in these urban schools are doing the job they were hired to do and that is help their students learn how to read, and do mathematics.  And they’ve done this in spite of all the issues that surround schools in urban communities.

In systems thinking, as Mr. Johnson would tell us, there are two types of causes of variation in any system.  The most important cause of variation in any system is what we call “common causes” of variation that is really a function of the system itself.  Examples of common cause variation will fall within control limits on a graph (as shown below in Figures 2 – 5). Examples of common causes that influence variation (scores on tests, for example, or graduation rates) include 

  • High percentage of children from low SES groups.
  • Where the school is located. It’s zip code.
  • Age of the school building.
  • Size of the school system.
  • Underpinning policies, practices, procedures of the school which determines it’s culture.
  • Inadequate resources.

According to Deming, nearly all outputs of schooling are the result of common cause variation, and these would include drop out rates, achievement test scores, violence, bullying, gang activity, low self esteem, attitudes, under performance and literacy skills.

Defying Gravity

When we examine a school system from a systems thinking view, these outputs are causes by the day to day effects of common causes of variation.  As Deming and other systems thinkers, such as Ed Johnson would say, trying to seek achievement scores beyond what see in the graphs (Figures 2 – 5) is to “defy gravity.”  Reformers have charged ahead as if they can “defy gravity” and have put the blame of not improving test scores in the wrong place.

Managers (administrators) and workers (teachers) are not “common cause” variables.  However, since schools are based on a linear factory model, “reformers” ignore common causes, and instead claim that teachers and administrators can overcome the challenges posed by common causes.  When reformers insist on market reforms, and they don’t work, they blame the teachers and principles.  And to make matters worse, they use student test scores (which are the result of common causes) to evaluate teachers on the basis of false assumptions about schooling.

We think that the present system of reading and mathematics is fairly stable.  The output in reading and math (as measured by a test score) vary little, and one can make predictions about future reading and math output.

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We will explore systems thinking in future posts.  But for now, what do think about the analysis of the NAEP TUDA data as compiled by Ed Johnson?

If It Isn’t Working, Fix It!: The Case of Science in Urban Schools

Another article in the New York Times by Ellen V. Futter, “Failing Science” pointed to the utter disastrous situation of science teaching in America’s urban school districts. (You may not be able to “read” this article unless you have an account with the NYTimes). The Futter article is a response to the announced results of science in urban schools for fourth and eighth graders by the National Assessment of Educational Progress. (If you follow this link, you will be able to access all of the results of the NAEP’s Urban Science Test). As I have acknowledged on this blog, the results are not very good. Fetter cites the statistic that 43 percent of eighth graders do not have the skills to understand basic science principles. If you go to the NAEP website of test results, you will see that the authors struggle with the results. Some times its difficult to see how the kids are really doing. For example, on the Executive Summary page it says: “The percentage of fourth-graders performing at or above Basic ranged from 35 to 60 percent in the districts, compared to 66 percent for the nation. The percentage of students performing at or above Proficient ranged from 6 to 26 percent in the districts, compared to 27 percent for the nation.” What they mean is 40 to 65 percent of the kids in urban are not able to do science at the “basic” level in fourth grade compared to 34 percent for the nation. Are we in trouble when 1/3 to 2/3 of your class can not answer basic science questions on a standardized test? You’ll have to be the judge of that.

But something needs to be done to bring to students some of the wonder, excitement and joy of knowing something well. The culture of science as seen in museums and zoos, in science education learning centers such as the Boston Museum of Science, or the Exploratorium in San Francisco some how needs to reach into the schools, especially our urban schools. There are simply too many students who could be challenged to do well, if given the chance, and could prosper in science learning environments. Atlanta just built a multi-million dollar aquarium (Georgia Aquarium). More than 3 million people visited the museum in its first year, and just after a year, millions of dollars of improvements will be made to the museum. Many museums around the country have school programs, as the Georgia Aquarium does, but simply bringing kids to a museum for a field trip is not going to impact the culture of the school, where the problem really lies. The culture of school learning needs to change.

Most science is taught using text books that allow teachers who are not prepared to teach science to involve kids in memorizing facts, rather than engaging in hands on science activities. The classroom culture does not reflect the natural world, nor does it foster an exploratory or discovery oriented way of looking at learning. I know these are generalizations, but they are based on research by Horizons Research, Inc. that looked at the activities that teachers use in science classrooms. According to results on a year 2000 report, about 9 percent of classes work on extended science investigations, or help kids design their own experiments, and event less are involved in reporting any of their findings to the class. Instead learning is extremely “school-like” with predictable activities such as reading from the text, following instructions in a “lab” activity, working in groups. The culture of the museum or the natural world, or how people in science work is not really present in school. Kids rarely debate science ideas. They rarely do lab activities or science projects in which answers are unknown. Students rarely contribute to important science-related social issues such as working on projects where they monitor air pollution, or look at the quality of the water in their local streams, or what the geology is under their school!

There are however examples out there that contribute to changing the culture of school. The Gates Foundation, which I’ve written about, is working with some urban schools to reduce the SCHOOL size, enabling teachers to create more personal learning environments, and more opportunities for students to worth on relevant (to the students) projects, engage in debates about various topics, not only in science, but other areas of life.

There are other examples of how to change the culture of school. Learning Styles work by Rita Dunn and associates have shown that focusing on the variety of ways that people learn can have a powerful impact on changing the culture of the school. Work by Carol Tomlinson and others on Differentiated Instruction is a powerful way of working with classrooms that are diverse. I’ve been a long-time supporter of the 4MAT system, developed by Bernice McCarthy. 4MAT is a powerful tool for organizing instruction around diverse ways that students learn.

These are pedagogical approaches to changing the culture of schools. However, cities like Atlanta need to start with changing the culture of how businesses, institutions of higher education, science centers and museums view their relationship to public schooling, and their responsibilities for improving the quality of education in their own community. This is where we must start to fix the problem.

Reading and Math Needed Before Science Can Be Learned?

The Science Report for the Trial Urban District Assessment recently became available by the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP). Ten large urban U.S. school districts volunteered to participate in science testing, grades 4 and 8 in 2005, and the results of the test administration were just made available. Most editorial pages of newspapers in the ten districts carried comments and editorials regarding the results, which in general were not very good. You can view the Science Report for the Trial Urban Districts Assessment at the NAEP site. It’s very easy to use, and there are more statistics there to answer most any question you might have.

The districts involved in the NAEP testing include the following: Atlanta City School District: Austin Independent School District; Boston School District; Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools; City of Chicago School District 299; Cleveland Municipal School District; Houston Independent School District; Los Angeles Unified School District; New York City Public Schools; and San Diego Unified School District.

In live in the Atlanta area, and there were several articles in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution regarding the results for the Atlanta Public Schools. Atlanta did not do very well on the tests, with 58% of fourth-graders and 78% of eighth-graders scoring below “basic” in the NAEP science tests. The scores are not my concern here in this post. My concern is the claim made by the Superintendent of Schools for Atlanta that “there’s no way for students to do well on NAEP science is they are not reading and doing math.”

This might be true, but I also found that the Superintendent made no apologies for the low science test scores saying that it was more important for the students to score well on the literacy tests administered by the State of Georgia each year.

Is reading and math necessary to learn about science? Probably yes. However, should we use literacy in reading and math as an excuse for not teaching science? Probably no. So, what is going on here? Why would a superintendent of a large urban district seemingly not be concerned that students in her district are not learning about science?

There are several reasons why this kind of a dilemma exists. Test results demonstrated that students in the Atlanta school district are not very competent in science. However, Atlanta volunteered to take the test, as did the other nine urban districts. Science has not been a priority in the testing momentum that has taken over education in American schools. The No Child Left Behind Law does not require testing in science, thus enabling school districts to put more time into the school day into having students mastery literacy in reading and math. Has the increased time on reading and math tasks resulted in higher scores in these areas? Are students doing well in reading and math? According to NAEP test scores, no. The NCLB Law has increased the pressure on school districts to create a curriculum that is skewed away from science and the arts, and toward minimal literacy. And state departments of education are going along for the ride. In Georgia, the emphasis on testing has gotten out of hand.

Another reason this dilemma exists is the pedagogy of the curriculum. The Back to Basics movement of long ago and here, front and center, and as I have written, innovative and creative teaching is not a goal that districts address. The hallmark of science is inquiry and discovery learning, especially in elementary classrooms. Unfortunately, when science is taught in the elementary school, it is not focused on hands on and inquiry based learning, but typically on reading from a text, or doing cookbook style “experiments.” And the nature of the pedagogy utilized in the middle school does not reflect inquiry or hands on learning either. So at a time that many educators feel that students might be hooked on science or the “love” for learning, our schools have retreated to a back to basics regime, removing inquiry and experimentation from science teaching, and from school in general.

Science educators need to share some of the blame here as well. Taking Science to School: Learning and Teaching Science in Grades K-8, a new report issued by the National Research Council, is very critical of science education standards, and the way in which schools fail to understand childhood learning and the potential for learning. Instead of making use of new research on learning, curriculum developers and schools have played it “safe” and used old forms of pedagogy.

Districts like Atlanta would do well if they experimented with alternative curriculum designs, and created curricula that were more integrated. That is, curriculum in which literacy, science and the arts is a fundamental aspect of learning. Science can contribute enormously to literacy, and to mathematics. Educators, such as the superintendent of Atlanta, needs to boldly look to the future and implement more innovative curriculum.