The goal of this article is to frame a conversation around a MORATORIUM on TESTING, especially in urban communities. I have attempted to identify reasons why we need to temporarily cease this destructive practice. Written in bold letters are questions that you might want to pose with friends, church members, policy makers, social group members, community leaders. Perhaps it might inspire you to write a letter the editor of your local paper or to lawmakers. Our voices need to be heard.
Will Children and Their Teachers Be the Next Bubble?
The industrial capitalism was the greatest era of prosperity Americans ever experienced. Designed to prepare ALL students to share in the prosperity of an industrial economy, schools and their teachers taught basic skills and rote memorization to the masses and a critical thinking, problem-solving curriculum to the cognitively and economically elite. A daily, COVERT curriculum of silence, obedience, stillness, rigid uniformity, and punctuality prepared both groups to TAKE ORDERS WITHOUT QUESTION from a foreman in a plant or from a manager in an office. The industrial economy was a social and economic context in which schools/teachers were neither expected to nor needed to educate ALL children equally and well. However, because of the unruly forces of globalization and technological change, this schoolhouse model/mission is gone with the wind.
Birth of a New Educational Civilization
After Industrialism died and along with it a prosperous way of life, alarmed stakeholders: foundations, educators, business people, politicians, parents rushed to birth a new narrative.
How do we prepare ALL students to succeed in a Post-Industrial World? Because the price of prosperity is no longer automatic submission to authority, what new covert curriculum do we need to institute for students? What should the new educational baby/ system look like: Charter schools? Vouchers? Performance Pay? Accountability systems? Technology? Better Funding? Eliminate Unions?
No secret sauce, no easy answers.
With the goal of improving education for ALL children, former President George W. Bush signed The No Child Left Behind ACT (NCLB), America’s first official 21st century birth certificate for its schools. A key component of NCLB is ongoing testing of students and sanctions for schools that do not meet “adequate yearly progress”.
Under President Barack Obama’s administration, the Common Core State Standards Initiative (CCSS) has been created to provide a consistent, clear understanding of what students are expected to know in English Language Arts, and mathematics at the end of each grade in ALL schools. New standards are being designed for science and social studies. Though all states have not adopted the controversial CCSS, it is hailed as a way of lifting achievement at low-performing schools accustomed to rote memorization and basic skills.
In addition, to compete for the Race to the Top funding, most states produced a wave of legislation designed to create an Educator Effectiveness Reform Model. Meaning that the results of student assessments will be linked to decisions concerning tenure, workforce reduction, compensation, and dismissal. Both students and teachers are now enveloped in a performance-oriented culture.
Moratorium – Freeze – Halt – Cessation
Recently, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, partially responsible for the funding of the CCSS, called for a two-year moratorium on states or school districts making any high-stakes decisions based on tests aligned with the new standards. A decision like “instituting new performance evaluations for teachers that tether ratings in part to student test scores is cited.
The Foundation pleads that teachers need time to develop lessons, receive more training, get used to the new tests and offer their feedback. Is the Gates Foundation describing the unprepared, transient teachers that flood urban schools? Will they be around long enough to pass on any knowledge they gained to poor, urban students?
Testing – A Path of Destruction
The Gates Foundation is spot on. It is time for a moratorium, however for different reasons. Testing is a fast growing urban weed, strangling everything in its path. Schools are closed; principals and teachers lose their jobs or are repeatedly transferred to other schools. More failing schools are opened and then closed. Turnaround schools and reform models abound. Urban schools are veritable Petri dishes of experimentation. And children of the poor and children of color are the experiments.
A catastrophic tool, tests are used to padlock neighborhood schools. In their place, charters in distant locations are opened causing poor children to have to wait in the dark to be bussed to other failing schools. Living with parents who are already jobless, underemployed, emotionally unavailable, this most vulnerable population faces the death of permanence and stability in their daily lives.
In addition, constant testing stains incompetence on children. It is a negative branding tool that can and will scar some students for a lifetime. The poor and children of color are always the one with the ACHIEVEMENT GAP- a deficit model that results in being labeled and shamed. The “Gap” upholds that white student achievement is the “gold standard”, the only standard of excellence. How can we close a so called “achievement gap” if we cannot bridge the “teacher-quality gap”? As long as poor school districts have to compete with wealthier school districts for teaching talent, will the “achievement gap” ever be closed? How do we create more equitable systems for assigning teachers to schools?
Upping the stakes by linking teachers’ performance to students’ assessments will only exacerbate a bad situation. Teachers hold the power to reroute the school-to-prison pipeline, and it is common knowledge that African-American and Hispanic students are suspended at a higher rate than Caucasian students. Thus, teachers who are so focused only on the cognitive domain (soul sucking tests) are more likely to suspend from the classroom any students they perceive as disruptive to their lesson plans. After all teachers’ career longevity, livelihood, compensation are at-risk. Educating the whole child? Security and stability for teachers? Gone with the wind!
I read with sadness in my heart a New York Times article:Common Core in 9 Year Old Eyes (June 15, 2014)
He had once been a model student — the fastest counter in the first grade, his teachers said. But last year, in the confusion of a new and more difficult set of academic standards known as the Common Core, he had failed the state tests in English and math, placing him near the bottom of his class…..At the very least, the young male resolved, he did not want to find out in June that he was so far behind that he would have to go to summer school. In his mind, it was a jail, a grave place devoid of friends, family and his Xbox 360.
I began to wonder, is high academic achievement permanent? Can it, does it exist every year, in every grade, across all content areas ? How many American children are ill-served by constant grade level testing?
As an educator, I learned that all fruit does not ripen on the vine at once.
In the book Developing Talent in Young People, Dr. Benjamin S. Bloom chronicles the childhood of experts from a variety of fields: math, science, music, sports, art. The experts had to be outstanding by the time they were forty because he wanted to be able to interview parents, teachers, friends to determine what made them great. I was in awe as I read that some of the experts (white males) recounted struggling with reading until fourth or fifth grades. What kept them going was strong family support, a hobby, and a mentor – something sorely lacking in too many American homes in the 21st century. Sadly, an African-American male who is struggling with reading in fourth grade has been labeled and written off by the school, his family, and society. A jail bed is being planned for him.
Perhaps a child struggles in reading because the language processing center of the brain (linguistic intelligence) is faulty and s/he has difficulty keeping words in memory. We know dyslexics need more time and more repetitions with words before they are mastered. It’s as if the brain is made of Teflon, words have difficulty sticking.
Some research suggests that technology also limits one’s concentration, memory and reflection skills needed to be successful with reading. How many hours do students spend in front of a computer or a television screen daily? How many students live in a culture/ environment that promotes print literacy? Have parents/relatives who daily model reading magazines, newspapers, books?
PART TWO- Different Systems of Assessment: Gifts Instead of Gaps