When it comes to the Common Core, we should “teach to the test”—and no, there’s nothing wrong with that!

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Core Debate

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Dear Carol,

Third-grade teacher Sherry Frangia, left, high-fives student Jayla Hopkins during a math lesson at Silver Lake Elementary School in Middletown, Del. Tuesday, Oct. 1, 2013. Silver Lake has begun implementing the national Common Core State Standards for academics.

Third-grade teacher Sherry Frangia, left, high-fives student Jayla Hopkins during a math lesson at Silver Lake Elementary School in Middletown, Del. Tuesday, Oct. 1, 2013. Silver Lake has begun implementing the national Common Core State Standards for academics.

With the school year behind us, I’ve been reflecting on our six-month long exchange. While we disagree on the merits of the Common Core standards, we share a passion for public education and the future of our students as well as a concern for the issues that threaten the future of public education.

Take for example the idea of “teaching to the test.” In your last letter, you voiced disapproval about the practice. On the contrary, to me, it makes sense to teach to the test. Is not the purpose of testing to determine if the students have learned what has been taught? Standards-based assessments are designed to measure what has been learned.

When I taught social studies, students would take an assessment at the end of each unit designed to determine if they learned the material. Theoretically, this is what we are doing with the state end of course exams in Florida and in other states. The assessment is based on the standards for the course. The same could be said about other assessments, such as the Advanced Placement tests, which specifically test the material covered in the course. If our teachers are following the standards, they should be teaching to the test.

Related: Catch them before they fall: A summer math program aims to improve odds of success in algebra

However, I agree that teaching to the test, is not without challenges. In Florida, much as you described in New York, more difficult standards are being applied to lower level courses. Teachers and students are faced with more rigorous curriculum. This was our first year dealing with a more difficult version of Algebra 1, in the standards of the course as well as the assessment. At the same time we also had to make adjustments in Geometry and Algebra 2 in order to teach the standards and prepare students for these assessments.

The standards are designed to build gradually from kindergarten through Algebra 1 but when we start with one set of standards and transition to more rigorous standards in the middle of a student’s academic career, as both of our schools have had to do, we have to fill in the gaps for the students who are moving from less to more rigorous standards midstream. It’s a challenge now, but in the future the Common Core will prove a real benefit as students are prepared for the more rigorous standards in the lower grades.

Related: Don’t blame the Common Core standards, how we measure performance is the problem

What alarms me is that while those of us in public education focus on and are assessed on standards that ensure that our students are ready for college and careers, there is no accountability for our counterparts in private or home school. Many parents are being enticed away from public schools with vouchers and “opportunity scholarships” with no accountability measures in place like the ones that we are subject to in public schools. If we believe that all students need to be ready for college and career at the end of high school, then we should ensure that wherever a student receives an education that there is a measure of these standards—not because we object to alternatives to public education, but because we recognize education as a public good not a private benefit.

Related: Principal’s last advice: Let’s move beyond the rhetoric and really question the Common Core

In our exchanges we have both agreed that we have a responsibility to prepare students for college and careers. Over the past few weeks we have also discussed our responsibility to ensure that our students can collaborate and creatively solve complex problems; that they are able to make ethical decisions and are prepared to be good stewards of our planet. Education is essential to our functioning democracy.

Carol, you and I are both passionate supporters of public education and we are working to produce well-educated, thoughtful, creative, engaged citizens. We need to get the accountability right. The recent application of assessment results for teacher evaluations and other school measures is not in the best interest of our schools or students. Assessments that measure learning are an important part of that getting that piece right.

We need to do this because our stakeholders need to be assured that their investment in public education results in a positive impact in the future. I have a quote by John Dewey that punctuates my email signature: If we teach today as we taught yesterday we rob our children of tomorrow.

As we move forward as a nation I hope we can refocus on what is needed to ensure that our schools create opportunities for students to exceed their own perceived potential. I am looking forward to the school year ahead and the challenge of creating a brighter future for the students at West Port High School.

It has been a pleasure to have the opportunity to exchange thoughts with you and see the Common Core from your perspective. I want to congratulate you on your many achievements over the course of your career and the lives of the students you have positively impacted and wish you all the best on the next leg of your journey.


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Jayne Ellspermann

Jayne Ellspermann is principal of West Port High School in Ocala, Florida and was named National Principal of the Year by the National Association of… See Archive

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