Common Core tests will increase “achievement inequality”


by David Safier

Ed Supe John Huppenthal put out the word that the Common Core test will mean higher failure rates in Arizona than the current AIMS test. And he's right. It only makes sense, if you give a tougher test and don't adjust the pass-fail point downward, more kids will fail. But he hasn't pointed out that, while the failure rate will go up a bit at schools with "high achieving students" — that usually translates to "high income students" — the failure rate could rocket to 90% or higher at schools with low achieving — read "low income" — students.

That's what happened when New York gave the Common Core test in place of the usual state test at the end of last school year. In New York City, the passage rate was basically cut in half, from 47% to 26% in English and from 60% to 30% in math. But among low income students, the scores plummeted, reaching a 75% drop in some cases. In one East Harlem school, for instance, the passage rate on the English portion fell from 31% to 6.8%, and in math from 44% to 9.5%.

The huge drop in scores for low income students compared to high income students — the growth in "achievement inequality" between the academic haves and have-nots — isn't because the low achieving students are worse educated than they were before, or because their test prep wasn't as good. It's a predictable outcome of the test getting harder. And the same thing is going to happen in Arizona when the Common Core is implemented. Achievement inequality will increase dramatically, as will the number of schools labeled as failures when the Common Core tests replace AIMS. Expect the conservative "education reform" crowd to be overjoyed as they ratchet up their faux outrage at the growing failure of "government schools."

This old English teacher is going to risk making a fool of himself by diving into some simple statistics, but I'm willing to take the chance because I think the reasons behind the increase in achievement inequality when we go with the Common Core tests are clear enough, even I can figure them out. Below are two simple graphs. Both show the standard bell curve — the normal spread of test scores — for two schools. The school in green is an "A" school. The school in blue is a "D" or "F" school.

The bell curves of both schools are in the same place on both graphs. The only thing that changes is the position of the pass-fail line.


This first graph shows what these schools might look like with the current AIMS test scoring. The "A" school has 90% of its student passing with only a 10% tail falling into the failing range. The "D" or "F" school has a 30% passing rate.


Look what happens when the pass-fail line is moved. The "A" school goes from 90% to 60% passing. It only loses about a third of its passing students. But the "D" or "F" school loses three-quarters of its passing students, dropping from 30% to 7%.

This increase in "achievement inequality" would happen if we raised the pass-fail point for the current AIMS test. It's certain to happen with the Common Core. The test is more difficult than AIMS, and the passing point is set at a higher point nationally, so a major jump in "achievement inequality" is inevitable. And it will inevitably be used as a weapon against the low performing schools to put them into "turnaround" status. The next likely step would be a state takeover of the lowest performing districts.


  1. No one has ever alleged cheating on Washington dcs NAEP scores for good reason. It is an incredibly difficult test to cheat on and the people administering the test and taking the test have zero incentive to cheat. They allege cheating on the local test. There was cheating on the local test. Academic gains weren’t as large as they said, just large enough to be number one in the nation in academic gains.

    How did DC make those gains? The had a teacher performance pay system called IMPACT. I cost a cool 40 million per year, roughly a thousand dollars per year. A billion dollars a year program in AZ terms. Somewhat similar to the performance pay program that BASIS runs inside their school with one notable exception – BASIS uses AP tests as their accountability measure. Using AP tests gives them a bulletproof accountability loop thus avoiding the cheating problems of DC.

  2. It is all based upon an incorrect supposition. We should not be using standardized tests to measure progress we should be keeping individual portfolios and measuring each student against themselves. You see where they are when they enter and how much progress they make in a year.

  3. And what, exactly is the state going to do about these schools? Seriously. If the state has a magical formula for improving schools WHY AREN’T THEY DOING IT ALREADY?

    Other than firing all the teachers and administrators what on earth do they think they can do?

    Just institute massive test score cheating? That’s the only thing that appears to have worked since we started this insane path of teaching to the test.

    (and it really hasn’t hurt the folks jamming this testing regime down our throats)

  4. The question is, what policy produces better outcomes? High standards appear to produce gains across the entire spectrum of performance. From 2000 to 2011, Washington DC had the highest NAEP gains in the nation, Massachusetts came in close at second. These gains were across the achievement spectrum, not just at the top. Minority students who can pass at this higher level will now be especially energized and identified. This is a good thing.

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