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High Stakes and Unintended Consequences

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by Kevin W.Riley, Ed.D.
El Milagro Weblog

tests.jpg
Two weeks from today we will administer the 2009 version of the California Standards Test-- eight testing days of cheerleading and managing modified schedules and erasing stray pencil marks. When it's over, we'll box up the answer sheets and dutifully send them to Sacramento where we will await the verdict with blind faith in the accuracy of an invisible scoring system.

Blind faith because for all that is at stake with this thing, there is an extraordinary lack of control over the outcomes. And make no mistake, we have a healthy regard for the importance of the results and for the unintended consequences engendered by another testing season. How high can the high stakes be?

• These test results will follow every one of our students for the rest of their school careers.
• Future teachers will rely on these results when considering students for afterschool programs or AP classes; for participation in athletics and performing arts; for placement in the bluebirds reading group or tracking them into a school life of eternal and uninspired remediation.
• Specialists will determine that some students are gifted, by virtue of the advanced score in math or reading. Others will diagnose sometimes-arbitrary learning disabilities because a student scored significantly lower than they otherwise would have been expected.
• Schools will (illegally) consult the test results of new students registering at the counter to determine "if there is any room" or whether they should try the school down the street.
• Others will consult the scores as the final straw before banishing 'delinquent' and chronically low-performers to continuation school or independent study or homeschooling or some other equivalent of learning in Siberia. (Watch how frequent this occurs in...oh, let's just say... the weeks immediately before testing! When I was the director of the juvenile court schools for San Diego County, we could bank on a swelling enrollment of students kicked out of their neighborhood schools just weeks before the CST!)

Can high stakes get much higher? Yes... actually they can.

Presidents and governors and mayors and school board members all run on the promise that they will raise the scores--if not the stakes-- in high stakes testing.
• Superintendents can extend their brief tenures by another year and principals can delay their "return to the classroom" on the strength of a good test outcome. Or not.
• Veteran, tenured teachers feel the pressure too. And since most boilerplate union language allows them to transfer to the district's higher achieving schools as a benefit of seniority... they often do.
• Meanwhile, low achieving schools experience the constant turnover of veteran teachers seeking higher ground and novice teachers prematurely folding their careers for lack of support or training.
• And so low performing schools (and schools in low income areas) are far more likely to be staffed by teachers with less experience. Younger teachers. Teachers beginning to raise families of their own. Teachers who, when they are raising families of their own, take extended maternity leave and entrust their students to itinerant, long-term substitute teachers who have far less experience than the inexperienced teachers they are replacing.

But the stakes get even higher when you track the migratory patterns of families and wealth within a community.

• Young, education-savvy couples consult websites like greatschools.net to determine where the best schools are in a community-- as determined by metrics like the Academic Performance Index (API).
• So higher test scores create a better reputation for the school district and a stronger selling point for real estate agents.
• Ultimately, the shifting and moving of families within a community are more likely determined by the API of schools and districts than any other factor (aside from the cost of homes.)
• Just as the veteran teachers flee low performing schools, so too do high performing students! As their parents become more financially stable, they will join the migration toward higher API scores and the illusion of better schools.
• Thus our school communties continue to shift according to the integration of public education's two most consistent outliers-- socio-economic status and API scores. It's a brain drain.

So when we administer the California Standards test beginning on May 4, we will do so fully aware of the high stakes with which we are playing: children's school careers and the scope of life opportunities afforded them, the careers of educators and politicians, and the distribution of talent and resources within our communities.

There is, in the end, an incongruence here. We have a universal desire to improve our schools and our students' learning, but a system of assessment that produces a host of unintended consequences-- not the least of which-- is the perpetuation of the very achievement gaps we seek to explain and mitigate through high stakes testing.

We'll do our part to buck the data trends. El Milagro. High stakes and we are "all in".

6 Comments

Kevin--a concise and truly accurate snapshot of the effects of standardized testing and without vitriol.

Wow! And I thought we had high stake testing here in Alberta where a grade 12 government exam is 50% of the final mark (considered for post-secondary), where teachers are get phone calls from their superintendents if marks are too low but not if they are high, and and where conservative think tanks like the Fraser Institute rank schools. (Despite statements from the government that the marks should not be used for ranking.)

D. Collins...

Thanks for reminding me. That is another element of the whole system and another set of unintended consequences that I failed to mention: the ranking of schools and threat of sanctions against schools that do not make adequate and prescribed levels of progress. The pressure has caused lots of schools to turn into test prep academies (in spite of admonitions against such practice.) And in some cases, test administrators have not necessarily done everything... shall we say... as the law prescribes.

I am sure I left out several other unintended consequences too.

Kevin:

I applaud your honesty. Seldom do (public school) educators admit that they use scores (illegally) to cherry pick students, or work to move kids from the school system to the juvenile justice system if they are not easy to work with (and likely to produce good scores).

I wonder, however, how much of this is fairly termed "unintentional." I have been around schools as a parent for a couple of decades and as a community advocate for a considerable time before that. I have seen tests, and consequences come in. I am also aware that some (public) schools have always found ways to get rid of kids that soaked up resources or made them look bad in lots of ways. The special ed department has always had a fight on its hands regarding the location of "units." Nobody wants those kid--whether they are tested or not, whether their scores are reported or not. One consequence of testing and reporting is that some of the places kids are sent to (where there are enough in one place to "count") have gotten the resources to improve educational outcomes. Guess what--those kids are smarter than we assumed. Prior to NCLB I taught GED classes (and if you ever want to experience lack of resources, check into teaching GED). We got kids who were legally too young to teach without the permission of their public school--they arrived with a counselor's slip. We got young adults who gave up in frustration around ninth grade. They believed that they were stupid. We got adults who might have had a learning disability but were never tested (and we had no testing resources) and others who had the label, but no notion of what their disability was, or how to overcome it.

Dumping is not a new phenomenon.

But we are still dealing with systems set up for the intended consequence of seeing that kids whose parents have money are better served than the kids whose parents do not. We still are living with the consequences of systems designed to give college prep programs to the white schools and vocational education to the black schools.

The real estate value add is an inherent one in our system. Recall the 1960s when corrupt agents used the fear of "blacks moving in," to turn quick sales through "blockbusting," and the "white flight" to the suburbs as courts ordered urban districts to desegregate. The only difference now is that we no longer have to use race as the proxy for schools that have high aspirations vs those that see themselves as good enough--we have test scores.

We have to, intentionally, give up our belief that a better crop of kids is what will improve schools. We have to, intentionally, abandon the belief that we can do not better and some kids just cannot be taught. We have to begin to accept, intentionally, that the fault is not in our stars--but in ourselves. We have to leave behind, intentionally, all the shell games that we play to avoid real improvement.

It's not unintentional.

Great statements, Kevin. Your final paragraph hit it right on. It's something I find myself "fighting" colleagues and others. about. I don't believe that there are kids that don't want to learn. We just are not willing to reach out to them. How can we work on eroding the notion that some people are just not worth our time?

Margo/Mom:

I always value your commentary. As always... well reasoned.

You say:

"But we are still dealing with systems set up for the intended consequence of seeing that kids whose parents have money are better served than the kids whose parents do not. We still are living with the consequences of systems designed to give college prep programs to the white schools and vocational education to the black schools."

I could not agree more. These systems were designed to perpetuate the inequities we are trying so hard to overcome today. And of course, we could both list hundreds of examples of the inequities designed into the public education system. And while the testing movement has lead to significant improvements in teaching (and learning) because of the reliance on quantitative data for leveraging continuous improvement in schools-- it is not enough.

In fact, about the entire testing scheme... here are the sentiments that I left out:

The current craziness around standardized, summative testing is veiled as "accountability"... as in, you can't be trusted to insure children are learning so we will threaten and cajole compliance with standards that are not- intentionally(!)-- uniform, fair, equitable or even educationally relevant from state to state.

We get this "accountability" strategy from NCLB.

We get NCLB from the same administration that lied about sending Americans to die in Iraq, that let an American city and American citizens drown, and that let our economy collapse like a house of cards. Now we find out that the same President violated the Constitution and tortured human beings in the name of keeping us all safe.

So I am a little cynical that NCLB was actually conceived of as a strategy to help those children of New Orleans that we couldn't even throw a life vest to.

I think in fact that NCLB was designed so that every public school district in America might end up like the schools of Jefferson Parish... buried in mud and debris.

So I passionately agree with your last line:

"It's not unintentional."

I believe we absolutely have the school system and the outcomes and the achievement chasm across racial and ethnic lines that is pre-ordained and even desired; and that to brook that chasm requires addressing the fundamental emotional, health, social and economic needs of children and their families. And that that is not going to happen.

I also know full well as a school leader set to administer the CST in two weeks, that if I say what I just said it will be misconstrued as "making excuses" and "not wanting to be held accountable".

So instead... through the use of irony, I want to challenge readers to draw the very same conclusion that you did: "Wait a minute... this isn't UN-intentional!!!"

And in the meantime... we will-- as one very courageous charter school-- power forward to comply with the federal law called NCLB while simultaneously providing our children with the extraordinary quality of education they deserve. In spite of NCLB.

You wrote:

"We have to, intentionally, give up our belief that a better crop of kids is what will improve schools. We have to, intentionally, abandon the belief that we can do not better and some kids just cannot be taught. We have to begin to accept, intentionally, that the fault is not in our stars--but in ourselves. We have to leave behind, intentionally, all the shell games that we play to avoid real improvement."

We are there Margo/Mom. We are with ya.

www.muellercharterschool.org


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Recent Comments

  • Kevin W. Riley: Margo/Mom: I always value your commentary. As always... well reasoned. read more
  • D. Collins: Great statements, Kevin. Your final paragraph hit it right on. read more
  • Margo/Mom: Kevin: I applaud your honesty. Seldom do (public school) educators read more
  • Kevin W. Riley: D. Collins... Thanks for reminding me. That is another element read more
  • D. Collins: Wow! And I thought we had high stake testing here read more

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