NO EXCUSE: AN ARGUMENT AGAINST DECEPTIVE METRICS OF SCHOOL SUCCESS
Sixteen seven- and eight-year olds sit in a circle on the floor. On the wall to their left— the first thing they see upon entering and exiting the classroom, always done in complete silence— is a list of individual “Assessment Goals.” (This “no excuses” charter network creates its own high-stress tests, which all students take at least five times per month, beginning in kindergarten.) One student´s math goal reads, “I only use strategies that I know.” All are written in the teacher’s handwriting. Others include, “I read my work over so I don´t make careless mistakes.” “I begin each sentence with a capital letter.” “I draw base-ten blocks to show my work.”
On the wall to their right is a list of the class averages from the last six network assessments (taken by all second graders across the charter network´s three campuses), all of which are in the 50s and 60s. Even though these two-hour tests are designed by network leaders to be exceptionally challenging— a class average of an 80% is the holy grail of teachers, who use their students´ scores to compete for status and salary increases— this class´s scores are the lowest in the school, and the students know it.
The teacher speaks to them in a slow, measured tone. “When I left school here yesterday, after working hard all day to give you a good education so you can go to college, I felt disappointed. I felt sad.”
Shoulders drop. Children put their faces in their hands.
“And do you know why?” The teacher looks around the circle; children avert their eyes.
One child raises her hand tentatively. “We didn´t do good on our tests?”
The teacher nods. “Yes, you didn´t do well on your assessments. Our class average was very low. And so I felt sad. I went home and I felt very sad for the rest of the day.”
The children nod resignedly. They´ve heard this many times before.
Suddenly, one child, an eight-year-old who has been suspended for a total of sixteen days for repeatedly failing to comply with school rules, raises his hand. The teacher looks at him. “I am noticing that there is a question.”
The child tilts his head. “What does average mean?” Several children nod; it seems that they, too, have been wondering this, but have been too afraid to ask.
The teacher sighs. “It´s a way to tell if everyone in this room is showing self-determination. And what I saw yesterday is that we are not. Scholars in Connecticut College” —at the school, children are “scholars,” and classrooms are named after four-year colleges— “are not less smart than scholars in UMass. But the scholars in UMass got a 78% average.”
One girl pipes up. “And we only got a 65%!”
The teacher moves the child´s clothespin a rung down on the “choice stick” for speaking out of turn. “And the scholars in Lesley got a 79%. The scholars in UMass and the scholars in Lesley are not smarter than you are. They do not know how to read better than you.” She looks around. “They do not know how to write better than you.” Suddenly, her voice rises in volume. “Scholars, what can we do to show UMass and Lesley that we are just as smart as they are?”
The children look to the list of “assessment goals” posted on the wall. They raise their hands, one by one.
“I will read my work over so I don´t make mistakes.”
The teacher nods.
“I will begin every sentence with a capital letter.”
“I will do my best work so you don´t get sad anymore.”
The teacher smiles. “Good.”
This teacher— with whom I co-taught a second grade class— is now a high-level administrator and “instructional coach” at the school. It is her job to ensure that the school’s instructors (almost all of whom are white) to “teach” using these dehumanizing, teacher-focused tactics with their students (almost all of whom are children of color from low-income families.) The school is one of several Boston-area “no excuses” charters that receive major accolades (and many hundreds of thousands of dollars in grants and prizes) for their high scores on state standardized tests. Supporters and leaders of these schools claim that the high scores extracted using these methods prove that the schools are “closing the achievement gap.” Look, they say, pointing to the score reports: poor black kids in Boston are outperforming rich white kids in Newton and Brookline and Wellesley.
And, indeed, this data is compelling. Its very existence teaches a powerful lesson that this country needs to hear: children of color from low-income homes can outperform wealthy white children on standardized tests, which are the metrics that we as a society have decided mean…well, something.
The problem is that standardized test scores mean very little. On the only tests that do mean a tremendous amount for these students— the SSATs— students at the school I taught at perform abysmally. Subsequently, these same middle schoolers who often dramatically outperform their wealthy white peers on these tests are not accepted in large numbers to the most selective high schools (and most of those who do struggle socially and emotionally when thrust into student bodies that aren’t upwards of 98% students of color); struggle to succeed academically in high school (81% earn high school grade-point averages below 3.0 in the first semester); and certainly do not thrive after high school, graduating from college at very low rates and, among those who don’t go to college, failing in large numbers to secure full-time employment.
Correlation is not causation, after all; the fact that those wealthy white students who do well on state standardized tests go on to enjoy tremendous opportunities, in education and in life, does not mean that these scores cause these outcomes. This fallacy, however, constitutes the fuel of the no-excuses runaway train, and leads to the dehumanization of children of color at schools like the one at which I taught. At this school, children are deprived of a comprehensive, developmentally appropriate, and humane education; instead, they are subjected to militaristic discipline, excessive amounts of testing (well beyond that which is already mandated by the state), a criminally deficient amount of playtime (in a nine-hour school day, kindergartners have twenty minutes of recess), and lack of access to social-emotional curricula— all so that the people who run their schools can make a political point.
If we are to improve the educational prospects of this country’s most at-risk students, we need to examine our educational practices and institutions using metrics that matter. Standardized test scores are easier to obtain and compare than data which are nuanced, holistic, and, to the extent possible, representative of aspects of K-12 education which enable and predict access to higher education and opportunities in life. (The fact that we have not yet found the perfect embodiment of the latter by no means excuses the continued use of the former.) Our obsession with meaningless, deceptive standardized test scores creates schools, like the “no excuses” charter at which I taught, which seem to excel— but fail in the ways that truly matter. There is simply no excuse.