Common Core Standards

Principals and Online Testing – Part II

Note: This is the second of a two-part post on the challenges faced by principals implementing online testing tied to the Common Core and new college- and career-ready standards. So much has happened in recent weeks that I divided the entry into two parts because one post would not do justice to the topic.


In part 1, I described that with the spring testing season now winding down, principals in a number of states feel as though they are under siege. For some schools, whatever could go wrong has gone wrong.

From my contact with principals in a number of states and my ongoing work with principals in schools in five states, I have learned that online assessments present principals with a number of new and old challenges.

I divided this post into two parts. Part 1 addressed no-technical challenges principals face in implementing the new assessments. This entry will address the technical issues.


Principals and Online Testing – Part I

Note: I intended that this blog entry would focus only on the technical side of online testing, but so much has happened in recent weeks that I would not do justice to the topic if I ignored the context in which the new, online testing occurs.

WiGetItRight.jpgth the spring testing season now winding down, principals in a number of states feel as though they are under siege. For some schools, whatever could go wrong has gone wrong.

From my contact with principals in a number of states and my ongoing work with principals in schools in five states, I have learned that online assessments present principals with a number of new and old challenges.

I have divided this post into two parts. Part 1 will address no-technical challenges principals face in implementing the new assessments. Part 2 will address the technical issues.


Leading Literacy for Learning…in the Golden Age of Literacy

Literacy is the “cornerstone” of student success.

I have spent the last twenty years either developing or advocating for literacy at the secondary level. From my perspective as a school leader, the Common Core State Standards represent our greatest opportunity to finally make school wide literacy a permanent part of the culture and fabric of secondary schools.

On one hand, these are the best of times for adolescent literacy. On the other hand, the timing could not be worse.

At a time when expectations for student achievement have been completely reset, finally placing all students on a pathway to college and career readiness, schools across the country are experiencing budget shortfalls and, in many cases, staff cuts. Larger class sizes, retirements of veteran teachers, coupled with an influx of less experienced teachers and new, drops in enrollment in teacher preparation programs, and less experienced school leaders all add up to lower instructional capacity at a time when we desperately need all the experience we can get. Doing more with less is not exactly a recipe for success. (more…)

Teachers are getting more Common Core training, but on 1/4 say students are prepared

According to Catherine Gewertz at Education Week, “teachers are getting an increasing amount of training to prepare for the common core, but that doesn’t always make them feel ready to teach the standards.


According to the article, a recently released study, “From Adoption to Practice: Teacher Perspectives on the Common Core,” shows that while far more teachers are attending common-core training, they are giving those sessions low marks for quality.

  • Professional Development and Training. In last year’s report, 71 percent of teachers said they had attended professional development or training for the common core. This year, that figure rose to 87 percent.
  • Teachers were far more critical of their training sessions in 2013 than they were in 2012, however. Two-thirds felt they were of high quality in 2012, but barely half said so in 2013.
  • Only 23 percent reported that the assessments had been a topic of professional development.
  • Far more common is training on the English/language arts standards; training on the math standards runs a distant second.
  • Their sense of preparedness, ranked on a scale from 1 (“not at all prepared”) to 5 (“very prepared”), was about the same in this year’s report as it was the previous year: just under half gave themselves 4s or 5s on that preparedness scale.
  • Only one-quarter said in this year’s report that their students were well prepared to master the standards, and 14 percent said their students were well prepared for the tests.
  • Teachers are unhappy with the lack of alignment between their instructional materials and the common core, a situation that’s stubbornly unchanged from the year before. Nearly six in 10 said their main curricular materials were not aligned to the new standards.
  • Teachers are pretty cynical about publishers’ claims that their materials are “common-core-aligned.” Fewer than four in 10 said they’d trust curriculum providers’ claims of alignment.
  • Only 18 percent classified themselves as “very familiar” with the math standards in the fall of 2012, but that number rose to 31 percent in the fall 2013 survey.


Why was there “far more training on the English/language arts standards; training on the math standards runs a distant second?”


Literacy is now a “shared responsibility” across all content areas. This means that all secondary teachers are expected to integrate purposeful reading, writing, and discussion of complex text into their lessons. In reality, few teachers have received the training or support to carry out this formidable task, which will take several years of focused practice to reach an acceptable level of proficiency.

Although elementary teachers are much better prepared to teach literacy skills, they must increase the amount of informational text and do more argumentative/persuasive writing, which are significant changes.

Critique of Common Core Math Ignores Two Key Points

In The Wall Street Journal, Marina Ratner, writes that American students are already struggling against the competition. The Common Core won’t help them succeed. She notes “That there were “fewer standards” became obvious when I saw that they were vastly inferior to the old California standards in rigor, depth and the scope of topics. Many topics—for instance, calculus and pre-calculus, about half of algebra II and parts of geometry—were taken out and many were moved to higher grades.”


The author believes that the Common Core Math Standards are not rigorous enough and that the teacher-assigned math problems are not effective. However, the author fails to recognize two key points:

  1. The Common Core Standards establish a minimum, albeit much higher, set of expectations for all students. In other words, they set the floor. These standards are by no means meant to indicate how high we hope students can go. California has the option of adding 15% to the standards and could choose to include standards relating to calculus. As a principal, I wanted my students to take at least one math course beyond Algebra II, preferably and AP or IB course.
  2. The Common Core Standards define the what, not the how. It is up to the state, district, and school to decide on the how–curriculum and methods. Critics continue to point to math problems that are not a part of the standards, but represent the efforts of teachers in the initial stages of implementation.

School leaders, math anxiety is negatively impacting the math achievement of your students!

“Whether you think you can, or you think you can’t–you’re right.” – Henry Ford

With the adoption of new, more rigorous college and career ready math standards principals and math teachers across the country are putting in a lot of time and effort to not only understand the new standards, but to change the way we teach mathematics.

The primary implication of these new standards is that the current predominant practice of didactic-only instruction, with some guided practice of rote procedures, must give way to more well-rounded approaches to instruction that give students the opportunity to make deep sense of the content they are to learn and the practices in which they are expected to engage.

In other words, instead of simply working problems, students are expected to apply math concepts to unique situations and to explain their thinking—in writing—using higher-order thinking skills. According to veteran math teachers, the emphasis on application to real-world problem solving “will completely change the way math is taught.”

However, new evidence suggests that the monumental effort required to change math instruction may pale in comparison to what will be needed to change another invisible yet formidable barrier to improved student math achievement—an irrational, culturally induced fear of mathematics that is further complicated by our “number naming system” (Gladwell, 2008, p. 229) and the widespread overreliance on the use of calculators for simple mathematical computations that students should know how to do mentally.

Notice to school leaders: Math anxiety among students has been found to be widespread and tied to poor math skills. “Math anxiety means, unsurprisingly, that one feels tension and apprehension in situations involving math.”

While we have always known that some students had doubts about their ability to do math, I had no idea to what extent those attitudes permeated our schools. Here is what researcher and author Dan Willingham has discovered:

  • “Half of all first and second graders feel moderate to severe math anxiety.”
  • “Many children do not outgrow math anxiety.” Note: In other words, math anxiety does not go away, and, from my experience as a principal, may actually get worse and infect more students as they advance through the grades.
  • “25 percent of students attending a four-year college suffer from math anxiety.”
  • “Among community college students, the figure is 80 percent.”

After thinking about this research from the perspective of a high school principal, I would assume that at least half of my students were experiencing at least some level of math anxiety that was significantly diminishing their math performance. Most if not all of these students have the ability to do much better, but their mental and emotional state is detracting from their capacity to learn.

Distressingly, we could successfully change math instruction over the next five years and still not see significant improvements in student achievement. Overlooking student math anxiety may guarantee that all our hard work would go for naught.

stuObviously, this is a huge obstacle for students, teachers and schools. However, I know from experience that this can be changed. As Math Department Chair and author, Stu Singer, describes in The Algebra Miracle, our school completely turned around our math achievement. However, we did it the hard way—through trial and error learning. But if you are willing to learn from other peoples’ experience, our arduous, decade-long trial-and-error learning experience can pave the way for a much less strenuous pathway to success for your students.

Stu and I did not have benefits of researchers like Dan Willingham, Alan Schoenfeld, or Carol Dweck. We had to use logic, trust our intuition, and sometime rely on good old-fashioned blind faith. We made mistakes.

Today, I can confidently say that if I were starting all over again knowing what I now know, I would do things the same way—collaboratively and collectively with one exception. I would now be much more intentional in my focus on changing the expectations of our teachers and students.

By chance, Stu and I had a similar set of beliefs when it came to students and learning. We believed that work and effort determined ability. We were also willing to take risks and try new things. We treated our school like a math laboratory, we believed that given time and support, all students could learn at high levels, and our students proved that they could.

“School leaders and teachers need to create schools and classroom environments in which error is welcome as a learning opportunity, in which discarding incorrect knowledge and understandings is welcomed, and in which teachers can feel safe to learn, re-learn, and explore knowledge and understanding.” (Hattie, 2012)

Raising math achievement required a lot more than believing in the benefits of hard work and effort. We had to change our attitudes and expectations. We had to change the way we approached math instruction. Finally, we had to change the expectations of our students.

We had a plan and we were willing to work that plan over the span of a decade. Every decision we made was based on whether or not what we were considering would help our students learn, and we said “no” as often as we said “yes.”

We had a comprehensive short and long-term plan to improve student math achievement. What is your plan?

Next: A plan to relieve math anxiety and raise student math achievement.

A more realistic approach

By Stuart A. Singer, author of The Algebra Miracle

The critics of the Common Core are wrong. While the CCSS may be far from perfect, I am reminded of a quote from legendary football coach Vince Lombardi.

“If you strive for perfection you will never reach that goal but you may pass excellence along the way”.

If the emphasis on the real world outcomes found in the Common Core could be combined with changes in education to better meet the demands of employment in the 21st Century, the needs of all students could be addressed. These changes would include placing a greater emphasis for providing courses that will directly pertain to actual job descriptions. Preparing everyone for college sounds wonderful but when the numbers clearly indicate that two of every three students will never receive a degree, it suddenly seems less effective. Making the situation direr is the reality that, of those not earning a degree, two in five will not graduate from high school.

Turning academic success in a better direction will require an adjustment in attitude. The goal of earning a four-year college degree must remain an excellent outcome but it cannot be the only positive one. Currently pushing individuals to learn a real-world skill such as plumbing, construction, computer hardware and retail marketing only occurs after attaining a college degree has proven impossible. Instead these options need to be available and accepted early in high school.

Placing increased value in higher standards will potentially result in numerous positive outcomes. It will produce more individuals with viable skills upon graduation. It will also lead these students to refine those talents in far less expensive two-year community colleges. And perhaps it may also encourage many potential dropouts to remain in school.


Common Core: Delaying Sanctions is not Delaying Implementation

States like Florida and Louisiana are not delaying Common Core implementation; they are delaying using test scores to rate schools and to punish teachers and principals.

We know that students thrive in a school with a focused school wide literacy initiative–purposeful reading, writing, and discussion in every classroom and across all content areas. By my count only about 1% of all high schools have or are attempting such a program, which, just so happens to be a foundation of successful implementation of the Common Core State Standards. A lack of content-based literacy instruction is not due to a lack of desire on the part of schools, but to a lack of training and practice on the part of the teachers and school leaders. It takes years to build teacher capacity to integrate literacy effectively into their content areas. Keep in mind that literacy is but one of many school wide instructional shifts that the CCSS are bringing to schools.

Let’s be clear. States are proceeding with CCSS implementation but delaying levying accountability measures while schools are building teacher capacity.

In fairness, neither consortium will have a fully operational assessment system–pre-assessments, mid-year assessments, performance assessments, summative assessments, and timely feedback to schools–for at least two more years. Schools will receive no feedback from the field tests. How can we possible hold schools and teachers accountable for assessments when they have no way of receiving any feedback and no way to predict student success until after the summative assessments administered in May 2015?

It is almost like asking schools to hit a moving target while blindfolded. A fair system would allow for at least two years of testing and feedback under a fully operational assessment system before holding teachers, principals, and schools accountable.

College Board deals “devastating blow to critics of the national education standards”

“The “architect” of the recent changes to the SAT’s is also known as the “Architect” of Common Core and critics feel that the recently announced changes will pave the way for forcing local school districts to change their curriculum after all.”

The expected announcement by David Coleman that The College Board will align the SAT with the Common Core Standards represents a strong endorsement of national college and career-ready standards and severely undermines the arguments of Common Core detractors.
“It’s a roundabout way to put pressure on states that opted out of Common Core,” said Whitney Neal, director of Grassroots at Freedom Works. “If you are legislator from Virginia let’s say, this will put pressure on you obtain material to make your district more appealing especially to homebuyers. SAT averages are often included in realtor information and high school success rate is always a selling point.”

Both the SAT and ACT are now aligned with the Common Core Standards:

“Officials for ACT, the College Board’s main competition for standardized testing, said Coleman’s group is simply playing catch-up to improvements they had made a long time ago.

“Our reaction is that most of their changes validate our approach,” Paul Weeks, vice president of Customer Engineering for ACT. They are getting in line with a path we have been down for a while.”

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Ignite ‘14 to Feature Turnaround Principals

Is your school currently in ‘turnaround mode’? For all but a very few high-performing schools the answer is a resounding yes.

Schools are in the center of a vortex consisting of three major, long-term change initiatives; 1) new, higher standards with accompanying assessments and accountability measures, 2) new teacher evaluation systems, which include data from student test scores, 3) new state data systems for holding schools more accountable, which include attendance, school discipline, and graduation rates.

To further complicate matters, many schools have faced multiple years of tight budgets and are being asked to do much more with larger class sizes and less experienced teachers. At the same time school leaders are being asked to address a twenty-five year low in teacher satisfaction brought on, in large part by the ‘fire our way to Finland’ reformer mindset, an all-time high student poverty rate, and an increasingly diverse student population.

This so-called ‘perfect storm’ of school reform places dramatically increases pressures on school leaders to enter into ‘turnaround mode’ to improve student achievement by increasing rigor, changing staff expectations, and enhancing teaching practice. It is not surprising that 75% of principals say their job has become too complex.

Turning around a school—simultaneously raising student achievement in the face of more rigorous standards, (more…)