Failing the Test
Standardized testing and the reasoning behind No Child Left Behind simply do not address inequalities in our education system.
By John Merrow
Published: November 2006 / Dartmouth Alumni Magazine
In the world of education you hear a lot about the “achievement gap.” This refers to the pronounced gap between whites and blacks in achievement test scores. While the gap has narrowed somewhat among third- and fourth-graders, it grows ever wider in higher grades. Whites also do better than Hispanics. Rarely noted, however are two other outcomes: Asian Americans generally out- perform whites, and 15- year-olds in the United States scored lower than their counterparts in 23 other nations when asked to apply math to practical solutions. (Only five countries scored lower.) Our politicians and educators regularly wring their hands about the gap-and curry favor by promising to close it. Especially in recent years legislators have embraced testing, a solution that is damaging to all concerned.
Our public education system actually has three gaps-in opportunities, expectations and outcomes. The “opportunity gap” is obvious-rich schools have the most experienced teachers, the most up-to-date equipment and facilities, smaller classes and other advantages. What’s more, children from upper-income families begin school with distinct advantages. Some research indicates that, as kindergartners, these children have larger vocabularies than parents of low income children. Privileged children learned all those words in conversations with their parents, by having stories read to them and by asking questions. They certainly do not acquire their vocabulary through drill, but educators somehow seem to assume that vocabulary drill will work for the disadvantaged. “Drill them until they catch up” is akin to “whippings will continue until morale improves.” The “expectations gap” is more complicated.
For one thing, some teachers simply do not expect their poor, disadvantaged students to be excellent and guess what?-the kids often live down to those expectations. Janis Huira, a veteran teacher in East Los Angeles, calls this the objection (poor little things) mentality of educators. George W. Bush spoke often of “the soft bigotry of low expectations” in arguing for what became the No Child Left Behind federal law in 2001. In addition, disadvantaged children may not expect much of themselves. Perhaps they live in a peer culture that disdains intellectual achievement as geeky or “acting white,” which could lead them to fear the isolation that academic success might bring. At home their families may not have a tradition of academic success or ambition. While schools can reeducate teachers, overcoming peer and home attitudes is a tougher challenge.
Given gaps in opportunities and expectations, a pronounced difference in outcomes is both inevitable and substantial. Poor, non-white children score one, two or three grade levels below advantaged whites. Because life is unfair, poor children also face gaps in housing, nutrition and health care.
The nutrition, housing and health care gaps have a huge impact on learning. It’s tough to study and do homework when you share a studio apartment or an unheated garage with five or six family members. Schools associated with the Knowledge Is Power Program starred by two Teach for America graduates in Houston, Texas, attack the housing gap by establishing a longer school day. Most public schools in disadvantaged areas provide breakfast, lunch and basic health care screening addressing gaps that arguably ought to be of more concern to other agencies. Schools are expected to close the gaps in opportunity, expectations and outcomes, a task that becomes more difficult when politicians, educators and reporters focus almost exclusively on outcomes. Closing all three gaps requires commitment, sustained hard work, imagination and money. No wonder most of us prefer the alternative.
Yet focusing on outcomes alone is self-defeating. Even when schools do get those scores up, it’s often the result of mind-numbing drill, classes in “reading readiness” instead of real reading, and cuts in physical education, art and music. Not long ago I overheard a principal explaining her secret of success to colleagues: In September she replaced recess with test prep. Then, six weeks before the state tests, she eliminated art and music, again in favor of test drills. Not one of her colleagues objected, but why should they? Her approach worked, and she was recognized by her school district.
It’s hard to fault principals for focusing, laser-like, on short-term gains because they’re ruled by an absurd bottom line mentality that is worse than the stock market’s pressure for improved quarterly profits. Test scores rule.
But nor everywhere. In thousands of public schools devoted educators do what’s right, even if that means breaking rules and defying orders. Lincoln Elementary School in Mount Vernon, New York, doesn’t have a performance gap, because its teachers simply refuse to allow children to fail. Mount Vernon is urban America-and most of Lincoln’s students are from low-income families but 99 percent of the students succeed. Across New York State only 70 percent of third- and fourth-graders achieved at a satisfactory level in English language arts, according to the state’s most recent reports. Art, music and physical education (along with chess and other geeky extracurricular activities) are integral to Lincoln, but art students may design and create sneakers, using math in the process. Phys ed students examine velocity when throwing footballs and can measure for accuracy and distance. Principal George Albano scrounges for grants, hires the best teachers and gets out of their way. He requires that parents come to the school to get their children’s report cards. That’s technically illegal, but it gives him an opportunity to meet every family and invite them to be part of their children’s education.
At Lincoln 99 percent success means that three students did not achieve at a basic level. The preachers’ response was to give those students whatever extra help they could. No “achievement gap” would be allowed, not on their watch. At Lincoln it took hard work, determination, ingenuity and-just as important as any other ingredient clear analysis of educational reality. It also took time, because success doesn’t happen overnight. Something similar is happening in Chattanooga, Tennessee.
Five years ago the residents of Chattanooga woke up to read, on the front page of their newspaper, that their small city had nine of the state’s lowest-performing elementary schools. At these schools not even 20 percent of the third graders could read at a basic level. Publicly embarrassed, the city’s leaders had to act, and they did. The superintendent was told to do whatever was necessary to fix those schools, and two local foundations pledged $7.5 million to support his changes. Through the years the teachers that no principal wanted had been transferred to those schools, where the principals’ offices should have had revolving doors, because most changed leaders nearly every year.
The superintendent knew that improving educational outcomes required fundamental change, not lots of drill and more test preparation. He replaced all the principals but one, and told all the teachers they would have to reapply for their jobs. He couldn’t fire the underperforming teachers, and maintains that he did not want to; instead, he persuaded the principals in the suburban schools to each take one of these so-called lemons, reasoning that if they were surrounded by competent teachers and given support, the under performers might become effective in the classroom. The superintendent reports that this process made lemonade with half of the 50 lemons; the others left teaching.
Foundation money paid for a master teacher in each school, merit pay for teachers whose students did well on a series of measures, free master’s degrees at a local university in return for a four-year teaching commitment, and mortgage assistance for those willing to buy homes near their schools. Today, five years later, close to 80 percent of third-graders are at or above the basic level in reading. When teaching vacancies occur, principals report they have 40 or 50 applicants. Teachers in these schools make time to watch each other teach and regularly get together to talk about kids and strategies. As one teacher told me, “If children aren’t learning, then we figure out a better way to teach them.”
Neither of these stories is headline news. Most educators know in their souls that improving outcomes requires hard work, time, money and an honest assessment of opportunities and expectations. So why is the achievement gap so much a part of our national conversation? This may make readers angry, but I believe that those who obsess about the achievement gap are either cheap, intellectually lazy, ignorant or mendacious. The mendacious among us simply don’t want public education to succeed, and use every opportunity to call attention to failure.
People who are ignorant of the existence of opportunity and expectations gaps shouldn’t hold office, political or educational. The intellectually lazy, including some journalists who shorthand the situation by talking about the achievement gap, inadvertently contribute to public misunderstanding.
The cheapskates may be the largest group of offenders. Testing turns out to be the least-expensive educational reform. Testing is the educational equivalent of taking the temperature of a sick patient. A thermometer doesn’t cost much, and it can be used again and again. It doesn’t help the patient get better, but testing is on the rise, thanks largely to No Child Left Behind legislation that mandates testing in most grades in math, language arts and, soon, science.
Cheap norm-referenced, multiple choice, machine-scored tests invite the kind of skill-and-drill instruction that is done with poor kids. Because test prep often leads to short-term increases in scores, schools face irresistible pressures to focus heavily on the subject matter being tested-and to give short shrift to everything else. Cheap tests also drive out more nuanced assessment such as teacher-made tests and individual assessment, which are much more expensive to implement.
However, being cheap can backfire. Illinois spends well more than $8 billion on public education-but only $45 million on tests to determine whether students are learning or schools are succeeding. That’s about one half of 1 percent, which may have been cutting it a little too close. Harcourt Assessment, which received that $45 million contract, wasn’t able to meet the contract deadlines, meaning that schools weren’t able to give the Illinois Standards Achievement Test as planned. State officials report that Harcourt’s materials failed to arrive on time to most districts and that many test booklets and answer sheets contained misprints, that pages were out of order and that sections of reading, math or science exams were either missing or duplicated, creating delays in when tests could be administered. Cutting corners creates other problems. This spring we learned that four questions on the New York State seventh- and eighth-grade mathematics exams also appeared, verbatim, on sample tests distributed to students earlier, embarrassing the state’s education department and the test maker, CTB/McGraw-Hill. CTB/McGraw-Hill has a five-year contract for $4.5 million a year to publish the New York exams, which indicates that the state devotes about .0005 percent of its annual budget to determine whether students are learning. (Imagine the outrage if we were to discover that Toyota, Apple, Pfizer or Gerber spent so little on testing its products!)
It’s hypocritical to establish the performance of white students as the standard against which we measure blacks and Hispanics. Why don’t we wring our hands over the widening achievement gap between Asian-American and white students? While it was 30 points in 1981 (513 to 483 on the SAT), it’s now 44 points (580 to 536). That’s in math, but Asian Americans also outperform whites by 18 points in English language arts. Dartmouth graduates ought to be serving on school boards and in other political offices where they can educate the general public and help create schools where intellectual exploration is the norm. Public schools must be engines of mobility and providers of opportunity for those with intelligence and determination, because this nation can not prosper with a permanent undereducated underclass.
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