How students are being set up to fail

Are school children being set up to fail? Jeff Bryant, an associate fellow at the Campaign for America’s Future, thinks so and explains in this post. Bryant is the owner of a marketing and communications consultancy that serves organizations including Human Rights Watch, Doctors Without Borders, PBS, and International Planned Parenthood Foundation. He writes extensively about public education policy at The Education Opportunity Network. Follow Jeff on Twitter: jeffbcdm

By Jeff Bryant

I have this recurring nightmare – one that, I fear, is about to become reality for most of America’s school children.

In my dream, I’m back in elementary school. It’s testing day and I’m struggling to remember my locker combination and get to class on time. My backpack implausibly opens and spills its contents into the hallway. Indifferent schoolmates rush by.

Finally I’m seated in class. The other students are already busily filling out their tests. An unfriendly proctor passes out the exam, and as I scan down the page, my stomach seizes into knots. I can’t answer a single question. The math problems are a confusion of numbers and symbols. The readings are worded with vocabulary totally foreign to me.

Oh, and did I mention I’m not wearing any pants?

Why do I fear my recurring nightmare – except the part about not wearing any pants – is becoming a reality for more of America’s school children? And why should anyone professing to care about the welfare of the nation’s school children care about this?

A Nightmare Writ Large

Earlier this year, students in New York state public schools took statewide exams aligned to the celebrated Common Core State Standards that are rolling out in most states in the nation. The results recently came in, and it’s obvious, given the numbers of students who failed the tests, that the students were about as well prepared for their tests as I had been for the tests of my nightmares.

One reason for why so many of the students failed –”nearly 70 percent of elementary and middle-school students” statewide – was because teachers weren’t prepared to teach students what students needed to know to pass the tests.

According to an article in Education Week, a new report issued just before the New York state results were revealed found that nationwide, “Many teachers in states that have adopted the common standards have not had any professional development to help them adjust to the new expectations.”

The reporter, Catherine Gewertz, explained, “Fewer than a dozen states reported that three-quarters or more of their teachers have received professional development for the Common Core State Standards.”

The report backed up a survey conducted earlier this year by the American Federation of Teachers that found that although 75 percent of teachers said they “support the Common Core, less than one-third said their school districts have given them the training and resources to teach to the new standards.”

In New York state specifically, at the time the tests were given, in April, an article in The New York Times reported, “This year’s tests … are unlike any exams the students have seen. They have been redesigned and are tougher. And they are likely to cover at least some material that has yet to make its way into the curriculum.”

Also in New York, students confronting these tests were facing severely stringent passing rates that heretofore had never applied to high-stakes testing anywhere. As education historian Diane Ravitch explained at her blog site, “State officials decided that New York test scores should be aligned with the achievement levels of the federally-administered National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP).” This is “a completely inappropriate model,” according to Ravitch, because “‘proficient’ on NAEP is what most people would consider to be the equivalent of an A,” and “any state that expects all or most students to achieve an A on the state tests is setting most students up for failure.”

In fact, many public officials,  including U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, expected large numbers of students to fail. And now, many of those same officials are trying to convince New Yorkers, and the rest of us, that purposefully failing students is a good thing.

Rejoicing In Failure

In light of the high failure rates, business leaders in the state of New York immediately expressed their confidence in the way things are going. In a letter, they intoned, “As business executives, we understand how challenging it can be for organizations to operate in a changing environment.” But “moving forward” is “crucial.”

The high rate of failure is “good news,” trumpeted former New York City School Chancellor Joel Klein in an op-ed in the New York Post.

The editorial board of The New York Times was quick to reassure that “the new tests require different and stronger skills than the old ones,” and “scores should be seen as a kind of baseline to evaluate student progress from here on out.”

Critics of public schools such as Jonah Edelman of the group Stand for Children explain that the high failure rates are an example of being “honest with our kids and families” because the new tests are more accurate assessments of the “knowledge and skills” students “truly need for college and career training.”

Why Set A Course On Failure?

Regardless of what you think about the new tests and their ability to assess what students “really need,” there’s little doubt that the students were set up to fail.

If setting schools up to fail is a design to make traditional schools look bad so parents are more apt to choose an alternative, such as charters, the new tests didn’t do that. Vaunted charter programs such as KIPP and Democracy Prep did particularly badly, as a report by Politico’s Stephanie Simon pointed out.

In a deep dive into the data, edu-blogger Gary Rubenstein looked at the poor performance of most charter schools – worse in fact that most traditional public schools – and wondered, “Maybe the hundreds of millions of dollars given to charters, both from the government and from private benefactors could be spent elsewhere in education more effectively.”

If the purpose of the tests is to point out how poorly public schools are serving children raised in poverty, then certainly one could say the tests “worked.” In New York City, for instance, districts with the most high-needs students did the worst, widening the achievement gap significantly.

Across the state, as the above-cited editorial in The New York Times spotlights, the yawning achievement gap that exists between poor, minority students and their better-off peers was made more evident by the new tests. “In language arts, for example, 50.4 percent of Asians, 39.9 percent of whites and 16.1 percent of African-Americans were performing at or above the proficiency level,” the newspaper’s editors noted.

But even without rolling out new tests, didn’t we already know that poor, minority students are underserved?

Failure A Good Place To Start?

Secretary Duncan and others have assured us that high failure rates are useful as a “benchmark” for judging future progress. Indeed with test scores this low, how can they not go up? Then politicians in charge can claim “success” for just about anything they roll out.

That logic was not lost on at least one New York superintendent who Ravitch came across. The superintendent, Teresa Thayer Snyder, wrote, “If you establish a baseline this low, the subsequent growth over the next few years will indicate that your plans for elevating the outcomes were necessary … I would bet my house on the fact that over the next few years, scores will ‘improve’ – not necessarily student learning, but scores.”

Concluding pretty much the same thing, Kevin Drum wrote on his blog at Mother Jones, “You can pass or fail as many kids as you want by fiddling with a test. Make it hard enough, and even a national merit scholar will fail. Make it easy enough, and even a moron will pass. You can set the bar anywhere you like. Is the new test a ‘better’ measure of how much students know? Maybe. Maybe not. But it’s different, which means it tells you exactly nothing.”

Failure Is A Choice

No doubt, there are many hundreds of thousands of dedicated educators toiling away at preparing their schools to teach to the new standards and to improve results on the tests that accompany them. And Secretary Duncan’s own department has allocated many millions of dollars in support of those efforts.

But all this toil and treasure pale in comparison to the cuts in support that continue to damage public education and school’s ability to adopt and implement new standards.

Most school systems have been on starvation diets since 2008. State budgets continue to slash education. Many states have not come close to restoring school funds that were cut due to the recession.

As the new school year rapidly approaches, in some of our largest cities, the issue is whether there is enough money to open the doors, much less adopt a whole new curriculum and testing regime.

As new Common Core-based tests roll out in state after state, there’s ample evidence that failure will be the norm, but few states will use failure to spur action. In fact, despite the fallout from the failing test scores in New York, teachers in New York City still don’t have the materials they need to teach the new curriculum. One principal quoted in The Daily News claimed he had ordered materials in April and still hasn’t received them. “It’s a nightmare … we don’t have the resources they promised us.”

No doubt, holding up failure as an option for improving the nation’s schools will strike many as perverse and will add to the skepticism many parents already have about the nation’s education policies.

It also stokes people’s feelings of anger and defiance. Writing at Education Week, New York principal Peter DeWitt questioned, “If you were going to change the tests to make them more difficult, why do it the first year you tied them to teacher and administrator evaluation? … Please tell me that you are not so naïve to think that this won’t create more issues for schools?”

“I’m angry,” DeWitt continued. “I’m angry that I continue to have teachers step outside of the box … very brave teachers, and get pummeled because their children did not do well on state tests … that they were never supposed to do well on in the first place … I am tired of people who expose our students to accountability and mandates that they would never expose their own children to all because they are out to prove that somehow we are failing.”

So now we know our schools and our students are “failures.” It’s “proven.” But whether you buy the failure message or not, what’s certainly proven is that there’s no political will to take collective action to do something about it. And that’s the biggest nightmare of all.

Valerie Strauss covers education and runs The Answer Sheet blog.
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Valerie Strauss · August 15, 2013