THE BLOG
09/30/2015 12:08 pm ET Updated Sep 29, 2016

The Story Behind the Test: Let's Gear Up, Not Give Up

The first months of the school year always bring a familiar setting: students getting back into classrooms, teachers working on their lesson plans -- and, recently, the release of pretty sobering data on the previous year's test scores. This year's California results showed 44 percent of students reaching their grade-level targets in English, while 34 percent hit their goals in math. In Los Angeles, these numbers were even lower, with a third and a quarter of students reaching their goals in the two subjects. These results are far below where all parents and teachers would like them to be, and no one should attempt to whitewash or gloss over that. But the results reflect an important story of our ongoing journey to raise expectations for all students and close achievement gaps for those lagging behind.

The first chapter of this story is about the reality of where we are today and where we want to be tomorrow. We've done something truly bold--in response to more challenging college and workforce environments, we've raised standards for the kind of education we offer our K-12 students. This means that students who have historically performed well against the older, less rigorous standards, will be asked to think more deeply and critically than in the past. It also means that we are leveling the playing field of expectations by holding our students, including those who have struggled to meet the older and easier standards, to a higher, more intellectual bar. We are saying to all students, "It's not just enough to have the 'right' answer any more, you must learn how to think, how to question and how to work together. You must become a deeper thinker." And to become deeper thinkers, our students need access to deeper learning--rich content, innovative instruction and opportunities to wrestle with their own learning.

Though the truth comes at a cost of lower test scores, these results cannot be digested without full context. The shift to Common Core State Standards isn't happening in an isolated bubble, it's happening amid other changes that are likely affecting test results as well. This is the second chapter of our story. In response to data showing racial inequity trends in terms of rates of suspension and expulsion for black and brown youth, school climate policy standards are being raised around the state, and more districts are experimenting with important restorative justice initiatives. Simultaneously, teachers and administrators are working to implement new A-G college readiness standards. And to make matters more challenging, we're implementing new funding formulas and designing new accountability tools for schools and educators. These improvements to our overall education structure, if implemented with fidelity and a focus on equity, are going to produce lasting dividends for students - in time. But in the short term, they are placing districts and schools in new and uncomfortable situations. While we should certainly think about whether we are trying to implement too much, too soon, we should resist the urge of simply reverting to business as usual. (After all, business as usual did not offer teachers more support or communities with greater educational equity.)

The third chapter is one we have heard echoed from the hills of Los Angeles to the hallways of Sacramento. Schools simply don't have adequate resources to make this monumental shift to deeper learning that Common Core demands. We are still working out technological glitches, a digital divide that disproportionately affects schools in high-poverty areas, curriculum that is still being fully baked and vetted by practitioners, and performance data that needs to be more timely and accessible. While this era of Deeper Learning and the implementation of Common Core does free up the creativity of teachers to design lessons aimed at going deeper instead of wider in terms of skills and content, it also requires teachers to learn a new way of teaching and delivering instruction. All of this takes time and tenacity.

So, if districts cannot and must not panic about this year's results, what should they do instead? How should the fourth chapter be written? At E4E-Los Angeles, a team of teachers anticipated these issues (having learned from the lessons of other states) and authored a policy paper entitled: "One School of Thought: Moving Toward Common Core." In their paper, they outlined recommendations for what the state, district, union and schools can be doing to improve implementation. The first step is to communicate the current context and the vision for tomorrow. Everyone from parents to policy makers, teachers, administrators, and students themselves need to know where we are, and why, and where we are aiming to go. Comparing this year to last year is far worse than simply comparing apples to oranges, and would be far more akin to comparing apples to tractors. The standards and the context are so far removed from year's past that all we can do is keep looking to the future we are trying to build.

To that end, we must work together to make and articulate a vision for where we want to see growth. As our teacher-written paper argues, one of the problems has been the inability of districts and schools to implement technology, and we must recommit to and invest in better integration of computers and computer-adaptive testing. If scores are lagging in part because teachers and parents are not up to date on the latest standards, then we need greater professional development and parent outreach. Whatever the problem, teachers, principals, counselors, and parents need to re-evaluate how they use meeting times, structures and expectations to tackle these problems together.

Tests can always get better, but will never be perfect. At times, they are overvalued, but they still provide valuable information that, along with other sources of information, help us develop more targeted and responsive solutions. This year's results show that something isn't working - yet. California is making many critical investments in education. If disappointing test scores prove anything, it is not that we should show our students how to give up, but that we should show them how to gear up for a new and more demanding world.