Writing yesterday on a Huffington Post blog, two high school teachers say high-stakes testing is a problem not because teachers will use it in their evaluations or because there’s too much of it, but rather, because it forces teachers to whittle what they teach down to the minimum criteria necessary to increase the number of students in their classrooms whose scores are most likely to increase from basic or below basic to proficient.One Possible Self-Sustaining Cycle of NCLB
Tests aren’t very good at differentiating A+ students from A students or F+ students from F students, because the federal government doesn’t care how high or low students are performing. Our laws are written so that all that matters is whether students or subgroups of students are performing at or below grade level, and standardized tests used in our schools were designed with those laws in mind. And since tests focus on kids at the boundary, teachers focus on kids on the bubble.
Helping gifted and talented students will not improve the proportion of students who are designated as proficient, and low-performing students aren’t likely to achieve proficiency no matter how much help they get, goes the argument.
As a result, what Josie Malone and Wagma Mommandi, who teach at a public high school in Washington, D.C., have noticed is that at low-performing schools, teachers focus on what they call “basic skills,” taking instruction time away from teaching critical thinking and problem solving. Problem solving ability can only be measured with projects, extended responses or papers, and other instruments that are a long way beyond any standardized test in a state’s arsenal, so teaching kids how to think critically won’t help test scores and therefore won’t move the school from below some arbitrary boundary to above it.
New tests, aligned to the Common Core, focus more on the high and low ends of the spectrum, so tests now being field tested by the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Career may be able to provide more information about student growth for a teacher’s high-performing and low-performing students. But the law still requires improvement only at the grade-level boundary.
We asserted the same point in January 2013, when we compared the courses available to Chicago high school students at a low-performing school with those at a regular high school. Testimony before the US Department of Education showed that low-performing schools focus on math and reading at the basic-proficient boundary more than they can focus at either the low or high end.
This phenomenon—the narrowing of the curricula at low-performing schools—is an artifact of turnaround and intervention schemes mandated under the No Child Left Behind law. We can’t say it too often: Cutting out the study of literature and the arts may have long-term detrimental consequences for our youngest generation. The arts and humanities put the world in context for children, and taking those subjects away from our low-performing schools puts the students in those schools at greater risk of failure.
Why should we maintain strong curricula in the arts and humanities? Because “we come to understand that the world has been different and could and will be different again,” writes Harvard President Drew Faust. “Literature and the arts enable us to see through a new lens, to look at the world through others’ eyes. Students in the humanities learn how to think critically and communicate their ideas clearly, and those transferable skills lead to rewarding lives and careers in every field of endeavor.”
Sure, there are snapshots of graduates in English making less money than graduates in accounting, and we have even reported some of those snapshots ourselves. Our point, though, wasn’t to suggest that studying the arts and humanities was somehow less important, since (a) the earnings differential for people with college degrees is less than 1 percent on average, according to Ms Faust, and (b) kids relate to the world through music, through Harry Potter books, through art, and so on.
So, our snapshots, while accurate, are just that: snapshots of school history. If we are to consider the entire narrative, in the context of kids’ lives, we would have to talk about a lot more than math and reading. But math and reading are just about all NCLB has to talk about, so we’re calling a spade a spade—again! School officials who “spin” test results before releasing them to the public or who tout the Common Core standards as something they are not or who insist on tests that are neither reliable nor valid nor fair are guilty of covering up part of the narrative of our children’s lives.
Considering the whole narrative, in other words, is a two-way street. For example, we can no longer call an increase in NAEP scores a “jump” when the US government reports that the gain being referenced isn’t even statistically significant. It’s all part of covering up part of the narrative of our children’s lives and the quality of our schools, and school leaders are just as guilty as anyone else of covering up the truth.
But so are we guilty of hiding part of the narrative, of seeking answers about school and teacher quality from metrics that have nothing to do with the arts or literature. The Common Core standards, as they reduce literature to an analysis of text, fall short of being anywhere near a valid measure of the quality of education, because any mention of the “whole narrative” of education must include studies of literature as literature, not as a list of evidence statements.
They’re good for what they are: minimal standards in math and English language arts. But for school leaders to stand in front of us and spin the tests aligned to the Common Core as being valid measures of the quality of our schools is to omit an important aspect of the narrative.
We need to fix this, now, please, starting with the reauthorization of NCLB so we can put testing and teacher evaluation in its proper place and get on with the business of learning.