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Jay on the Web: "Bubble Kids" and High Stakes Tests

In a discussion of a recent Jay Mathew's column about about whether low performing students are being adequately served in schools' scramble to pass high stakes tests, Public School Insights gives Mathews some extra credit:

You have to admire Washington Post columnist Jay Mathews for his openness to persuasion. Unlike so many education commentators, he is willing to budge an inch or two in the face of compelling arguments.
The latest example of this pliability came on Monday, when he responded to a young teacher's concerns about the effect of testing and accountability pressures on teaching and learning. He was willing to concede two problems the young teacher raised:
With its all-or-nothing focus on passing state tests, No Child Left Behind turns a blind eye to much excellent work in schools.
Current accountability policies encourage schools to focus on "bubble kids"--students just under the passing bar. Meanwhile, those schools leave other children behind.>
Mathews' instinctive reaction to the "bubble kids" phenomenon is fairly common: "A good principal...would put an end to such nonsense." This response certainly carries genuine emotional weight. Still, it puzzles me that so many DC policy wonks invoke it in defense of No Child Left Behind in its current form.
What, after all, is the point of a policy that creates poor incentives and encourages perverse behavior? If we can rely on everyone to do the right thing regardless of consequences, then we hardly need accountability systems in the first place.
As Mathews realizes, even good principals succumb to pressures to focus on "bubble kids" when the stakes are so high. When he learns that the founder of DC's much-admired Cesar Chavez charter school does it, he concludes that it is "a bigger problem than I thought."
Sure, many schools offer all children rich instruction in the liberal arts and still manage to reach their performance targets on state assessments. This website celebrates many such schools. But is such courage always or even often rewarded? Are impressive achievement gains always recognized in AYP determinations?
Mathews recommends broader, fairer and more accurate measures of school and student success. Like many, he calls for measures that gauge students' academic improvement over time.

By Washington Post Editors  | April 29, 2009; 3:27 PM ET
Categories:  Jay on the Web  
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There's no question that kids on the bubble (just below and just above passing)receive a disproportionate share of teachers' attention. How can it be otherwise, given the testing stakes for schools? In the best situations, high-achieving kids are provided with stimulating independent study projects they enjoy. This works for well-behaved kids...but it often results in negative behavior from bright kids who still need a teacher's attention. On the lower end, I have seen colleagues give up on students because "there's really no point; they're going to fail anyway." That's because there's no benefit to a school's scores if a fifth-grader goes from the first-grade reading level to a third-grade level. Both are two years below grade level so they're failures. But what a difference a jump like that would make to the child himself!

Posted by: neseid | April 29, 2009 6:32 PM | Report abuse

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