February 1, 2008

Let’s Rethink The Model of Standardized Testing

By Tiny aka Lisa Gray-Garcia

Is it possible to achieve educational equity for low-income students of color in California? A recent study titled, “High Schools For Equity,” shows that it is possible, particularly when schools take the initiative to create meaningful curriculum for their students, and allow them to show their understanding of material through assessments other than standardized tests.

Five schools were highlighted in the study that have provided low-income students of color in California with a rigorous and enriching education that prepares them for college and/or a career that will support not only their families but their communities as well.

In each of the five schools studied, students were provided with history, civics and science in their core curriculum (unlike regular schools, which rarely provide all three). Although the students were required to take the mandatory tests required by the State and federal policies, they were also given innovative and comprehensive alternative assessment tests.

One of the schools in the study, June Jordan School for Equity in San Francisco, incorporated several other important aspects in their core curriculum, such as arts and social justice coursework, and supervised internships in the community. Students had the chance to intern with such non-profit organizations as the Center for Young Women’s Development, where they worked on issues affecting poor women of color, and in offices of legislators, including Nancy Pelosi.

Leadership High School, also in San Francisco, added leadership development to their curriculum with such programs as a “Week without Walls,” a week where the normal schedule is suspended and the students lead the class with their fellow students and teachers.

In two other schools, Construction Tech in San Diego and New Tech in Sacramento, students are taught through project-based learning models that are engaging ways to apply real world experience to a high school student’s learning environment. Examples of projects that the students must create in math, science and geography classes include designing, measuring and developing a complex model for a new shopping center or amusement park, or creating an art and history interpretation of the Harlem Renaissance.

All of the five schools do college preparation classes with their student bodies, and, perhaps most important of all, the school’s staff invest themselves in the students’ and their families’ lives beyond the walls of the classroom. For example, the multiple teachers and lead advisors assigned to each student at June Jordan not only call home and speak to parents and children regularly, they also visit their homes. During these visits, they sit down and help with homework and also probe into other issues that are creating an obstacle for the student’s learning. The advisors are always mindful that the learning environment doesn’t end with the school day.

But as inspiring as these schools are, they are undoubtedly the exception. A close look at the schools in the study reveals to us just why they are so rare.

For one thing, the state’s uneven teacher preparation system turns out too few teachers with the skills to provide this kind of learning experience. And once teachers get to a school, they are not given the time to do the kind of quality planning and ongoing learning that is needed to inspire and support the success of all students.

Low-income students of color are increasingly judged by “high-stakes” standardized testing alone. Yet, this study suggests that rather than helping low-income students of color to succeed, standardized high-stakes testing in fact has the opposite effect.

Educators in the study feel strongly that these tests do not get at the more challenging skills the schools are teaching, and that preparing for the tests takes enormous time away from quality learning.

Recent statistics suggest that, among those who enter the 9th grade, only 56 percent of African American students and 55 percent of Latino students now graduate with a high school diploma four years later, and only 12 percent to 14 percent of those who graduate meet the requirements to attend a state university. These proportions are even lower in most urban districts.

The large achievement gap reflected in disparate test scores, graduation rates, and college-going rates for African American and Latino students in comparison to their white and Asian peers has not decreased significantly in more than a decade, even with the introduction of high stakes testing.

In the majority of California classrooms where the majority of students are low-income children of color, subjects that used to be considered mandatory like social science, history, science, music, art and physical education, have been stripped from the curriculum entirely, leaving only the so-called “basics” – math and English. The reason? High stakes testing preparation. When policy makers talk about the education of students of color, they often set the bar especially low — if students of color develop minimum competency in basic skills, then that is good enough.

Children are then sorted and segregated by their ability to “pass the tests,” and in some cases are even “pushed out” of their school entirely when they are unable to do so.

This leaves kids with interest and talent in areas other than math and English, or those who are academically disinclined, without the skills they need for basic employment, let alone higher education.

With Governor Schwarzenegger calling 2008 the Year of Education, and Superintendent of Instruction Jack O’Connell acknowledging that the education of African American and Latino children is nearing a crisis, it is urgent that we ensure that our policy makers are creating policies that actually support these children. An important first step would be rethinking the model of standardized testing. In an effort to make low-income kids of color more desirable employees, the effect has been to dim their prospects.

Tiny aka Lisa Gray-Garcia is the Communications Director at Justice Matters. To view the most recent Racial Justice Report Card released by Justice Matters, or to get a copy of the High Schools for Equity study and report go on-line to www.justicematters.org.

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