Here’s a puzzle. In the latest issue of Mother Jones, Kristina Rizga writes “Everything You’ve Heard About Failing Schools Is Wrong.”
Here’s what she’s writing about:
According to the scores, Mission High School in San Francisco, California, is among the lowest-performing 5 percent of schools in the country, and it has consistently failed to meet the ever-rising benchmarks set by the federal No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB).
But, as Rizga explains:
One of the most diverse high schools in the country, Mission has 925 students holding 47 different passports. The majority are Latino, African American, and Asian American, and 72 percent are poor. Yet even as the school was being placed on the list of lowest-performing schools, 84 percent of the graduating class went on to college, higher than the district average; this year, 88 percent were accepted. (Nationally, 32 percent of Latino and 38 percent of African American students go to college.) That same year, Mission improved Latinos’ test scores more than any other school in the district. And while suspensions are skyrocketing across the nation, they had gone down by 42 percent at Mission. Guthertz (the principal) had seen dropout rates fall from 32 percent to 8 percent.
How is this a failing school? That’s the puzzle that Rizga attempts to elucidate.
And mostly it comes down to the fact that standardized tests are all that really counts in the determination as to whether a school is failing or passing. Schools are graded on standardized tests. The law mandates universal “proficiency” in math and reading by 2014—a deadline that weighs heavily on educators around the nation, since schools that don’t meet it face stiff penalties.
Rizga spent 18 months embedded at Mission High School in San Francisco: if you wonder why you haven’t read many accounts of how these questions are playing out in real life, there’s a reason: It’s easier for a journalist to embed with the Army or the Marines than to go behind the scenes at a public school. It took months for her to find one that would let her in.
She follows one student, Maria, while reflecting on what makes a good school. Mission High earns an A+.
How do we know when schools are failing, and why is it so hard to turn them around?
That’s her central question. Is the close to $4.4 billion spent on testing since 2002—with scores now used for everything from deciding teacher pay to allocating education budgets—getting results? Is all that data helping us figure out what really works, or seducing us into focusing only on what the tests can measure?
Every spring across the nation, students in 3rd to 11th grade sit down to take standardized tests required by the federal NCLB. Each state comes up with its own tests, based on its own list of curriculum standards students have to master in each grade. In most states, standardized tests consist primarily of multiple-choice questions.
As Rizga points out:
No Child Left Behind was animated by this faith in metrics. It mandated that states use test scores to determine whether schools were succeeding or failing, with the latter required to improve or accept punitive measures.
However, ten years later, a growing number of education advocates say they didn’t anticipate how high-stakes testing would change instruction for the worse. Among the converts is education historian Diane Ravitch, who served as assistant secretary of education in George H.W. Bush’s administration and was an ardent champion of NCLB. “Accountability turned into a nightmare for American schools,” she wrote in a 2010 Wall Street Journal op-ed, “producing graduates who were drilled regularly on the basic skills but were often ignorant about almost everything else… This was not my vision of good education.”
Even the godfather of standardized testing, the cognitive psychologist Robert Glaser, warned in 1987 about the dangers of placing too much emphasis on test scores. He called them “fallible and partial indicators of academic achievement” and warned that standardized tests would find it “extremely difficult to assess” the key skills people should gain from a good education: “resilience and courage in the face of stress, a sense of craft in our work, a commitment to justice and caring in our social relationships, a dedication to advancing the public good.”
And how fair is this? After just one year in the country, Maria had to take the same test as native speakers, even though studies show that immigrant teens take at least four years to become proficient in English—and that’s with constant focus.
Yet despite a mountain of evidence that standardized tests reveal a very narrow slice of information, in most states they still determine a school’s fate.
An ample body of research shows that careful mentoring and peer review helps teachers figure out ways for struggling students to improve. But it doesn’t show up in standardized tests—and for many, it’s pushed aside by the constant battle to ratchet up scores.
The Obama administration has softened some of NCLB’s impact, granting waivers to more than half of the states from the law’s most punitive section, which calls for all students to score “proficient” in math and English by 2014. But even in the waiver states, standardized tests remain the dominant measure for schools.
We need to change this. My daily interaction with my students, the hours I put in to working with them individually: these are the moments of which I am proudest. And yet, when decisions around how to rate and grade teaching and learning are made, teachers are rarely involved in the discussions.
Instead administrators, politicians, and increasingly big business types are the ones to make the decisions.
Although determined to be “failing” under the No Child Left Behind Act, Mission High School is clearly succeeding in many important ways.
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