Will the Common Core Lead to More Schools Labeled Failing? Not Really.

There’s a common misconception that the new Common Core standards and assessments will lead to more schools being identified as “failing.” I see this a lot–Anya Kamenetz warned during a book talk today that we’ll see “score drops, schools labeled as failing, edu-panic.” It’s a good talking point, but it’s just not true.

This myth is driven by a misunderstanding of how school accountability actually works now.

It is quite likely that the more rigorous assessments aligned to the Common Core will cause student scores to artificially fall. Students won’t know less than they did the year before, but harder tests, with higher passing scores, will result in more students labeled as less than “proficient” on state tests. This is what happened in New York and Kentucky when they moved to Common Core-aligned assessments.

But note that doesn’t necessarily mean more schools being labeled “failing” or targeted for interventions. In the short run, the U.S. Department of Education is allowing states to “pause” their school accountability determinations during the transition to new assessments. In the longer run, the Obama Administration has quietly transitioned to a normative accountability system, where schools are compared to each other rather than to some pre-determined “proficiency” benchmark.

With a normative system in place, it doesn’t matter if all students appear to perform worse this year. States can identify the exact same percentage of schools for improvement no matter what happens on state tests. (Even if absolute scores fall, on a relative basis, student performance on the old state assessments is likely to look very similar to student performance on the new assessments.)

Normative systems are now in place in 42 states, DC, and Puerto Rico. These states should not fear any illusory “fall” in test scores.

What about the other states? States without a waiver–California, Iowa, Montana, Nebraska, North Dakota, Vermont, Washington, and Wyoming–must follow the school improvement processes outlined in NCLB. But most of these states already identify the vast majority of their Title I schools as needing improvement. California already has 90 percent of schools identified, Washington already identifies 88 percent of schools, and in Vermont, it’s 97 percent. There just aren’t masses of schools out there that could be newly affected by the new tests.

The Common Core is an easy bogey-man. But while the myth that the Common Core will trigger massive numbers of “failing” schools is a persistent one, it’s just not real.