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Schools May Pass High Stakes Tests, But Fail Low Performing Students

Sarah Fine, a 25-year-old English teacher at Cesar Chavez Public Charter School on Capitol Hill, vividly recalls a conference with the mother of a 10th-grader who read at a third-grade level.

"Shawn is a real asset to our class because he's so well behaved," Fine told her, "but I think he might need some extra support to get him up to speed in reading."

The mother said she had heard that before. Shawn had received help in middle school through special education. "But let me tell you, it don't do no good, because the problem is that he's plain lazy," Fine quoted her as saying. "He's failing every one of his classes. You got a solution to that?"

In an essay for Teacher Magazine last month, Fine said the mother's response made her want to squirm. "Shawn's problem is not that he is lazy," she wrote. "To the contrary, when I ask him to read in class he sits quietly, moves his eyes over the words, and laboriously tries to answer whatever writing prompt follows -- despite the fact that the text makes no sense to him. The real issue is that Shawn's deficits make it impossible for him to pass the DC-CAS test given to 10th-graders in April, and so my school, consumed by the imperative to make 'adequate yearly progress,' has few resources to devote to him. He does not qualify for our English Academy program, which targets students whose reading scores indicate that a 'push' might enable them to pass the test, and we do not have a reading specialist because there is no funding for one."

I have been hearing for some time about this practice of devoting special attention to what are called the "on-the-bubble" kids. They are close to scoring proficient on the annual test, which affects the school's rating under the No Child Left Behind law. Some schools give them extra teacher time, leaving less help for lower-performing students, such as Shawn, who have no chance of increasing the passing rate. I sometimes shrugged this off as just one more sign of poorly led schools. A good principal, I said, would put an end to such nonsense.

But Fine's story surprised me, because she is working at one of the city's best-led public schools. Its founder, Irasema Salcido, has made great strides with impoverished children. That Salcido and her team hired Fine, one of the best writers I have seen among full-time teachers, indicates their good judgment. So does their decision to use Fine as a department chair and teaching coach in her four years at the school. So if focusing on bubble kids was standard operating procedure at Cesar Chavez, it was a bigger problem than I thought.

In a March 18 commentary for Education Week, Fine said the emphasis on passing scores has corrupted attitudes about everyday assignments. "When I return papers to my students," she wrote, "they look immediately to their number grades to see if they crossed the 'passing line,' which they have come to view as the ultimate referendum on their performance. Students who have made impressive progress but did not pass have eyes only for their failures, and highly skilled students who pulled off C's high-five each other because they 'didn't fail.' "

"This is not to say that I believe the No Child Left Behind Act has done more harm than good," Fine wrote. "To the contrary, I have seen the accountability movement inspire my school to become more rigorous and student-focused." But, she wrote, "an enormous amount of excellent work gets buried by the system's fixation on failure." It would be better to credit the school for important successes outside of testing, Fine wrote, such as "when a teacher energizes a reluctant reader to tackle a novel, when a struggling math student starts coming after school for tutoring, when an administrator finally gets a troublemaker to reflect on her actions."

My first instinct was to suggest that Salcido and others who succumb to the bubble kid fixation cut it out and get back to teaching everybody. That is their job. The best teachers I know find ways to raise the achievement of every child. But if they take my suggestion and their passing rate drops, I am likely to be among the first to wonder whether they know what they are doing.

The best solution, just about everyone agrees, would be to accelerate the expected change of No Child Left Behind to a value-added assessment. Once states and the District improve their computer systems, they can rate each school by how much each child improves, rather than the current method of recognizing schools that reach a designated percentage of passing scores.

There should also be a way to honor Fine's request for an extra dimension, such as reporting a rise in students doing scientific experiments or writing analytical papers. Some monitoring systems, such as those used by International Baccalaureate programs, do that. It is part of good teaching and should be available to everybody.


By Washington Post Editors  | April 20, 2009; 10:17 AM ET
Categories:  Metro Monday  | Tags:  DC-CAS, low performing students  
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Next: A Debate Over Testing and Low Performing Students


"But let me tell you, it don't do no good, because the problem is that he's plain lazy," Fine quoted her as saying. "He's failing every one of his classes. You got a solution to that?"


It's becoming clear to me that our focus on substandard teachers would be better directed toward substandard parents.

Posted by: afsljafweljkjlfe | April 20, 2009 11:49 AM | Report abuse

"Once states and the District improve their computer systems, they can rate each school by how much each child improves, rather than the current method of recognizing schools that reach a designated percentage of passing scores.'

This requires zero new computing power. An average desktop can disaggregate the data and reform it and measure it in any way desired. The problem in my state is that the teachers' union has made certain under law that reaggregating the data by classroom to show whether a given teacher has achieved a year's growth for their students is forbidden.

Apparently, certain truths are too volatile for public consumtion.

Posted by: edbyronadams | April 20, 2009 12:03 PM | Report abuse

@edbyronadams No, the MIS systems truly are deficient. You make the classic blunder of assuming that all computing problems can be resolved with raw computing power. In the case of DC public schools, their software and business processes are flawed.

Did you know that DC public schools, even if they wanted to, could not print out a list of all DC public school students? The same goes for DC public school employees. You read me right, DC public schools has no idea who is teaching and who is learning in their schools.

That is not a problem that can be solved with a $500 PC that you'd pick up at your local Wal*Mart.

Posted by: afsljafweljkjlfe | April 20, 2009 12:11 PM | Report abuse

I can see the reasoning. If you can nudge a larger group of students towards passing the test - towards being able to fill out a job application, towards reading an instruction manual, towards being functional in this world- then you have improved the lives of everyone.

If all that same resource is spent on one student and the others aren't nudged then the one student still isn't functional, and all his/her peers aren't either.

In case anybody forgot - the purpose of education is to prepare students to enter the world. The more that can do that and at least tread water the better off we all are.

That's not to say that the one child should be left behind, but I can see why you might try to save the many first.

Posted by: RedBird27 | April 20, 2009 12:21 PM | Report abuse

Arkansas is one of the "value-added" benchmark states. Our students are still supposed to strive for "proficient" and "advanced" AND they are supposed to show growth. At all levels. Including the students who blew the top off the test and are in the 99th percentile. If they don't show improvement, it's listed as a negative point to the school. I asked how a student could improve past the 99th percentile. All I received was a "deer-in-headlights" look. Not to mention we're measuring growth based on different tests in different grade levels. Don't be too sure this "growth" model is going to make everything better--it's just another example of trying to measure a student with one test.

Posted by: inthetrenches1 | April 20, 2009 12:30 PM | Report abuse

In response to RedBird27:

The article speaks of "nudging" children who are "on the bubble." This might be sound reasoning if the standard for judging the student really meant anything. Passing these arbitrary standardized tests doesn't mean these students will be prepared for the real world. Teachers need to be able to evaluate and focus their attention on the students and skills they deem most appropriate. This includes qualitative aspects such as drive and behavioral issues. This does require talented and motivated staff, which can be hard given the current mindset of our education system. I don't know what the "right" solution(s) is; however as a student and son of a elementary school teacher, I do know using standards of learning as the bar is not the right way to address the problem.

Posted by: ttmoore | April 20, 2009 1:20 PM | Report abuse

What I still haven't seen addressed in this education column is the NCLB standards that keep rising until 2013 or 2014, when every school is required to reach 100% proficiency. At that point, almost every school in America will be designated as failing. Makes you wonder if Kozol isn't correct, that NCLB is a scheme to paint all public schools as failing, so people will swallow a voucher system.

Posted by: peixao | April 20, 2009 1:52 PM | Report abuse

Value-added doesn't make the situation much better for that 10th grader though. Bringing a child who is that far behind grade level up even one year takes an enormous amount more work than to bring a student who is closer to grade level up one level.

I tutored mostly with middle school students in math. We could spend an entire year working with a student on addition or subtraction facts. Even with a year of 1.5hr/wk tutoring, the student often did not master addition or subtraction facts. They certainly ended the year with a stronger hold of the facts, and usually increased their grade level by a few months, but they were still years behind grade level. Now, the kids who started out needing to brush up on division and worked through fractions made gains of several years grade level because they already had a foundation of math understanding, and by building on the foundation they could answer more questions than by learning a few more facts.

Building that foundation is hard work and takes way more time than building ON the foundation, like with fractions and decimals. The kids who still need to build the foundation are not going to show grade levels of progress at the same pace as the kids who have the foundation. And if you're just focusing on how far the kids go each year, you're not getting a complete assessment--which is a huge danger with merit pay tied to test scores.

The kids who comparatively need the least amount of help will get the largest gains and boost the teacher or school's average while, yes, the other kids get left behind. Unless value-added scores track building kids foundational understand of math and reading it will also be misleading.

Posted by: potmeetkettle | April 20, 2009 2:06 PM | Report abuse

potmeetkettle: why are so many kids such dummies?

Posted by: Curmudgeon10 | April 20, 2009 2:25 PM | Report abuse

Oh, boy. I hate to be a grinch, but I can't let that remark about IB pass. Have you ever seen the amount of schedule changes, transfers in and out, plus absences in a low-performing population of high school students? Before you "give" their teachers a chance to reward attitude changes, etc., how about getting the students just to stop moving and show up regularly. This population and group of IB students at the same school might as well be on different planets.

Posted by: pittypatt | April 20, 2009 3:18 PM | Report abuse

My wife, an English professor for many years, has noted a steady decline in basic ability to compose English sentences or express ideas coherently among those entering her university. This has been particularly evident since the advent of No Child Left Behind. She believes many public education teachers are teaching the test, not English, and the students are worse off than if the law weren't on the books.

Posted by: rwheeler1 | April 20, 2009 8:08 PM | Report abuse

These great comments convince me there is much more to be said on this subject. Some experts have emailed me to point out that making value added work will also require a major overhaul of the tests, as well as the electronic tagging of each student. It is not so easy to write an assessment that captures annual growth. There is also the matter of students who leave the public school system, thus no longer having their annual results recorded. I plan to return to this subject soon. Thanks for the input.

Posted by: jaymathews | April 21, 2009 8:05 AM | Report abuse

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