08/13/2013 11:11 am ET Updated Oct 13, 2013

Why We Need Assessments Worth Teaching With

At first glance, it was déjà vu all over again as New York's big test score drops were announced. The latest school "reform" quick fix, Common Core's "test worth teaching to" also failed to produce a miracle. The difference is that today's accountability hawks now must defend disappointing student performance reports. They can no longer celebrate the news about failing traditional public schools.

Common Core testing first followed the same basic path as No Child Left Behind. A bunch of non-educators proclaimed that our schools are broken. They mandated utopian test score targets and choreographed years of headlines about "Failing Schools"! They attributed low test scores to "Excuses" by teachers, not poverty, and claimed that testing would create "High Expectations!" and "transformative" change.

In 2001, some blood-in-their-eye supporters of NCLB welcomed the law's metrics that called for 100 percent proficiency by 2014. Those impossible targets were another weapon for proving that public education was beyond fixing.

The unobtainable goals guaranteed an endless series of exposes about schools failing to measure up.

Other impatient idealists, who now tend to support Common Core, had once placed their hopes in standards-based education. With NCLB, they shifted gears and tried to use bubble-in mandates as a cheap fix for high-poverty schools. The more idealistic advocates of Big Data denied that this would require massive investments new dollars to reverse "the benign racism of low expectations." They also denied that data-driven accountability would encourage teach-to-the-test educational malpractice.

But, as David Berliner and Sharon Nichols have long explained:

Only people who have no contact with children could write legislation demanding that every child reach a high level of performance in three subjects, thereby denying that individual differences exist. Only those same people could also believe that all children would reach high levels of proficiency at precisely the same rate of speed.

My experience was consistent with Berliner's and Nichols' prediction that setting unreachable targets would produce negative unintended consequences. Back then, my inner-city high school was not nearly as challenged as it would become after a decade of curriculum narrowing and worksheet-driven basic skills instruction was imposed on us. Our faculty, for instance, was just as good as that of a neighboring magnet school. But, NCLB metrics required us to improve at precisely ten times the rate as that high-performing school.

Was it any surprise that priority No. 1 for school systems was making sure that the patient did not die on their operating tables? Under-the-gun districts demanded excessive test prep and basic skills instruction and, predictably, the lowest-performing schools suffered the most damage.

Similarly, last week's outcomes were not as awful in New York City where leaders had invested their political capital and $233 million into a three-year process of preparing for Common Core instruction. That probably explains why NYC's English (ELA) scores only dropped by 50 percent from a 47 percent to a 27 percent pass rate. But, the Hispanic and black achievement gaps worsened. Among special education students and English Language Learners, the drops ranged from 64 percent to 72 percent.

In less favored, lower-income districts and schools, which haven't had the time or resources to shift to Common Core instruction, a timely transition to the new tests was just as impossible as NCLB targets. Only 5.4 percent of Rochester students passed the ELA, while 8.7 percent of Syracuse students and 11.5 percent of Buffalo students passed.

If we choose to, teachers now have an opportunity to fight fire with fire and showcase a series of failing "No Excuses!" schools. For years, high-performing charters that supposedly served the "same students" have been thrown in our faces. As Gary Rubenstein reports, NYC charters dropped more than NYC's traditional public schools. Pass rates for Democracy Prep Harlem Charter dropped from 84 percent to 13 percent, while KIPP Amp dropped from 79 percent to 9 percent in 2013.

Rubenstein is correct in concluding, "The reformer narrative just blew up." I hope teachers do not have to respond in kind, however, and showcase a new series of headlines proclaiming back to them, "You're busted!"

Hopefully, reformers will realize that regardless of whether you are setting 12-year testing goals or giving a fancy new test, it is not a good idea the set almost everyone up for failure. Perhaps, they will now acknowledge that a decade of pressuring schools to impose educational malpractice has backfired.

The magical thinking known as data-driven accountability won't turn our schools around. You don't make a cow heavier by weighing it. We must replace the idea that testing can drive miraculous improvement. The futile quest for "a test worth teaching to" must be replaced by diagnostic assessments worth teaching with.

Yes, poor children of color should and can meet the same high expectations as affluent kids. We can close the achievement gap, and higher standards are a part of the solution. We must close the "Opportunity Gap," however, before higher standards will produce real improvements. We can start making real progress when the theorists stop squandering so much of our energy and resources on silver bullets like NCLB and Common Core testing. Let's just hope that the N.Y. experience prompts some reality-based reflections by school "reformers."