In New York State, the debate over the implementation of the new, more rigorous common core learning standards has been everything from controversial to impassioned to confusing. The argument has frequently centered on the evaluation of teachers and principals using student test scores.  And the debate has become so heated that some teachers and even some superintendents are refusing to administer assessments tied to the standards. 

That’s entirely the wrong direction for our schools and, most important, for our kids.  And it is just too simplistic. 

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Instead, the discussion we must have is both about testing for our children's understanding and understanding our children's tests.

Historically, tests have been used as a measurement of a student's learning at the end of a chapter, book, or unit. That's what most of us remember, right? The test measured if we studied, did the work, understood the concepts, mastered the material or just did well on tests. Today the testing that we're doing in our schools can still be what we remember but it can also be more formative in nature. In fact, it should be formative--we should be using what we learn about our students' learning to inform what happens next in the classroom. Do we need to go back to the drawing board on a concept 90% of the students missed on this test? What kind of progress has each student made toward mastering the next standard? Who needs more support? Who's got it and is more than ready to move on?

As a superintendent I worked with our teachers and administrators in the alignment of our curriculum to the common core standards. As a measure of our progress--of our alignment and our expectations--we also implemented formative testing four times during the year in grades K-8, Math and ELA. Our families know this as iReady. We do this not to measure learning at the end of a chapter or quarter, but to check student progress toward the attainment of learning standards so that we can make mid-course corrections.

Since we made this commitment to learn more about our students and their learning, our student achievement on NYS tests has improved dramatically as compared to other districts. Why? Not because we're now "teaching to the tests" but instead, because we are focusing on the standards and individualizing learning through adaptive testing and diagnostic instruction in a blended learning environment. Teachers have always worked incredibly hard here. We are simply providing them with more information that helps them do the job better for every student.

Consider our rank on the achievement index. The achievement index is a metric wherein each district’s academic rank is compared to its socioeconomic climate rank. If a district is 25th academically and 50th in socioeconomics, it is said to have overachieved by 25 places. Using this metric we are the fourth most overachieving district in Western New York. I'm not so crazy about this measure as it's like saying, "hey we're doing better than expected given our rate of poverty" but it does demonstrate that ALL children can learn within a system that supports learning in the right ways.

Some opponents of State and federally mandated standards have argued that too much classroom time is spent on testing and test preparation. There is a lot of truth in that, particularly if accountability measures are mishandled and teachers, administrators and students are made to feel anxiety and pressure about testing or "practicing" for the tests. Without the right leadership actions to provide support to our teachers in building a system of functioning programs and testing that work, teachers cannot figure this out on their own. They will. I know this because they always have. But it won't be a system, it will be random. And it won't give a school district the kind of system wide results in which every child is challenged that most of us are looking to build. However, if schools are using adaptive testing and diagnostic instruction to inform the choice of curriculum for individual students, then making a small investment in testing time enables us to maximize instructional time.  

Adopting high quality tests and administering them with an eye on using the results to provide students with timely individualized help allows us to greatly enhance our educational systems. I see it in real learning in the classrooms and in our students' abilities, not just on NYS assessment results. For example, in our math classrooms our students now have much better rapid recall of math facts and their understanding of fractions and ability to do operations with fractions is much improved. They are also much better at attacking multi-step problems and seem to have overall better retention of what they have learned. Why? The common core standards are more rigorous and we've raised our expectations for all students while supporting them in a more individualized way.  

The most significant factors in our school improvement success have been the implementation of a coherent, cohesive common core standard aligned curriculum in grades K-8 and our use of regular adaptive testing and diagnostic instruction. This kind of testing is about giving teachers more information. Computer based diagnostic instruction is about giving all students individualized instruction. The bottom line? Blended learning with adaptive testing allows us to challenge all of our learners, not just our struggling learners. And by the way, our NYS test results have also improved significantly.

That’s the kind of comprehensive learning and assessment that the Common Core was designed to do.  Simply turning your back on the standards and “opting out” is a disservice to the work of educating.  Its hard work to get it right, but it’s worth it.

Moritz is superintendent of the Randolph Central School District in Randolph, New York.