Saturday, March 28, 2015

Help for the Failing Schools

This is newest reformster talking point-- the Big Standardized Test is a big boon to poor and minority students, and to ask them to opt out is to ask them is to ask them to become invisible. Robert Pondiscio was pushing it again at the Fordham's blog this week. It's a nice rhetorical move, but it's limited by the degree to which it doesn't actually reflect reality.

Pondiscio makes a few side points before he gets to the main event, suggesting that the New Jersey numbers on how many actual opt-outs are perhaps somewhere between fuzzy and wrong. But then he breaks down the numbers and the opt-out sales pitch to make another point-- as a battleground, Opt Out is shaping up as rich white suburbanites vs. poor brown and black urban dwellers.

I'm going to leave that point alone. Sarah Blaine turned over her blog space to Belinda Edmondson, a mom in Montclair, NJ, who is surprised to discover that she's white and pleased to inform her family that they're wealthy. Edmondson deals with that part of Pondiscio's point pretty well.

Instead, let's move on to Pondiscio's larger point, which is that BS Tests have been a force for positive change in "non-affluent non-white" communities.

Blacks, Latinos, and low-income kids have generally benefitted from test-driven accountability, particularly in the increased number of charters and school choice options...

Okay, if you think charters have actually benefited those students over and above any benefits they would have experienced from public school, I can see believing this point is valid. But first, the case that charters have benefits greater than public schools is a case that has not been effectively made. What we do know is that charters accept only a portion of the students in a community, stripping resources from the schools where all of the rest of the students remain. Are the gains (ranging from arguable to non-existent) for the few charter-accepted students worth the costs to all the other students?

Nor is it clear that BS Tests really had anything to do with these "benefits." Are there really pockets of bad, run-down, under-resourced schools out there that existed in some sort of unseen, unheard reverse Shangri-La and not a soul knew about them until test results came out? Because I haven't heard a convincing story of that yet.

Kids who are not tested end up not counting,” observed Kati Haycock, president of the Education Trust

This is one of those lines that sounds good, but what are we really saying here. Specifically, those untested kids end up not counting to whom? Surely not their parents. To their schools? To their state and federal representatives? If that's the case, are we really saying that in the face of poverty and want and crumbling buildings and lack of resources and students crying out for dignity, support and education that it's a score on a standardized test that's our best idea of how to move the needle?

"It could be a race problem but it's definitely a respect problem,” says Derrell Bradford, the African American executive director of NYCAN. “There is a pretty strong undertow beneath the opt-out wave. And the force of it is one where some people don't think testing, or Common Core, is the right fit for their child, so they don't think it's the right fit for anyone's child.”

Fair point. Of course, the door swings both ways. If the testing is the right fit for your child, should all children take it? But I think Bradford is missing the point-- we get closer to it with this quote from Pondiscio:

But I’m equally sympathetic to the low-income parents who think that testing reveals how badly they have been failed.

There's room to disagree about part of this sentences. Regular readers know what I think standardized testing reveals (hint: nothing useful at all), but even if we accept that the test reveal "how badly they have been failed," the sentence ends too soon.

Failed by whom?

We could look at test results and declare, "These students have been failed by their state and federal government, left to deal with the kind of poverty that we know leads directly to these sorts of low test results. We must marshall the resources of our society and country to bring and end to this poverty."

We could look at the tests and say, "The education establishment has failed these students by sending such tiny, narrow measures of achievement that have no proven connection to future success and which ignore the full breadth of human achievement that students in more affluent environments take for granted."

We could even say, "Somebody has failed these children, and we will not rest until we have performed the studies and research and in-the-earth examinations that tell us how these children have been failed. It's not an easy question, and we don't know the exact answer, but we will find it."

Instead, we've settled quickly and easily on, "Oh, they were failed by their teacher" and let it go at that.

You tell me that testing has pinpointed communities that need assistance and intervention, and I ask you-- show me school districts where the reaction to low test scores has been to send more resources. Show me five. Show me one!

Even when test scores are used to send in the charters, there's no increase in resources, no attempt to get these students all the help they need. Because we open second and third school systems without increasing resources, we're just shuffling resources around to less and less affect. We're like a painter trying to paint an entire house with one gallon of paint who, instead of buying more paint, just tries using more brushes to push the same amount of paint around.

What is undeniable is that those most likely to be negatively effected by the opt-out impulse are low-income children of color, for whom testing has been a catalyst for attention and mostly positive change.

I'm pretty sure that's deniable. In fact, I'm pretty sure it's completely unproven and without any basis. Testing has not been a catalyst for attention; it has been a catalyst for opening up markets to charter operators, a source of billion dollar paydays for test manufacturers, and an excuse not to invest any more resources or money in the students who need them the most.

This is one of those times when I really wish I were wrong. I wish I already knew stories from places like Philly and Chicago and Detroit and New Orleans where state governments said, "These tests make it clear-- we can no longer give our poorest students inadequate levels of support. We must find the will and the money to build these districts up, to create buildings so beautiful filed with resources so top-of-the-line that suburban parents will fight to send their children into the city to go to school."

But of course, that hasn't happened anywhere. Instead, we get scenes like New York State where a court order to fund poor schools equitably is gathering dust as the Governor says, "You can;t make me" and blames every low test score on teachers. We get New Jersey, where the state first starves then dismantles the school systems that serve brown and black children.

Reformsters make all this big talk about how the tests will be like a signal. "Take this flare gun," they tell our poorest students as they're left out in the desert. "If you feel like you're about to starve, just fire it off and we'll send someone to help." Then the reformsters drive away in cars spacious enough to carry many children, and they wait. And when they see the flare, instead of sending help, they send vultures.

I can imagine an assessment system that would help target schools in trouble (it would involve, among other things, listening to parents no matter how rich they weren't) and get them the sort of financial and resource help they needed. I would support a system like that. We keep talking about the BS Tests as if they were part of a system like that. But they aren't.

1 comment:

  1. "I can imagine an assessment system that would help target schools in trouble (it would involve, among other things, listening to parents no matter how rich they weren't) and get them the sort of financial and resource help they needed. I would support a system like that. We keep talking about the BS Tests as if they were part of a system like that. But they aren't. "

    This right here.