Jan 23, 2011

Fleeing from Schools in Need of Assistance

The No Child Left Behind Act (ESEA) may get a name change soon but one thing seems like it will remain: standardized, norm-referenced testing.

I am frustrated, on many levels, by norm-referenced bubble tests. First on my list of frustrations is the negative effect of the law's attention to subgroups. In case you are not familiar with subgroups, let me explain: each school district must report their students' test scores in a disaggregated fashion, listing the scores in ten groupings. The groupings are designated as follows: All Students, 5 ethic groups (American Indian, Asian, Hispanic, Black, and White) and Limited English Proficient, Special Education, Migrant Status and Free and Reduced Priced Lunch.  95% of all students must be tested, but if a school isn't large enough to have a significant population in a subgroup, they do not need to report scores for that subgroup.

I understand that the purpose of this part of the law was to ensure that members of these subgroups are receiving a quality education and are not lagging behind their oftentimes more advantaged peers. But in my experience, reporting the scores of these subgroups can lead to anxiety, anger, divisiveness, and the occurrence of a phenomenon called "white flight.

My city is suburban; it is a part of a thriving and diverse area surrounding a state university. There has always been diversity because of the university--graduate students from around the world come here to study.  People here are used to having a mobile population of educated families moving in and out of our neighborhoods and schools. We have all enjoyed the way these families from abroad give our Iowa town a more urban flavor, make us feel more like citizens of the world than just citizens of our state. But in the past 5-10 years, the diversity here has changed; the mobility no longer comes just from international students. We've had an influx of people from Chicago who come to Iowa to find a better life for their families. Housing here is more affordable, schools are excellent, and there is very little violence or crime compared to Chicago. The problem is that many members of our community are not comfortable with our our newest residents. They bring their culture with them and it is different. For some people this difference is wonderful; for others it is frightening. We now have some very colorful neighborhoods, some schools where 50% or more of the student population is not white. Many of our newest students are African American.

When new students enroll in schools in Iowa, we find that many are not reading at the same level as students who were born here.  Our schools do an excellent job of intervening to help struggling learners grow; but in many cases the growth is not great enough to meet the proficiency requirements of NCLB (known as Adequate Yearly Progress.) Failure to meet AYP happens most often my community's most diverse schools.  As a result, schools with a lot of diversity are now labeled Schools in Need of Assistance (in other states they are called failing schools.) The local newspaper publishes the disaggregated results of norm-referenced tests for these "failing" schools. Members of our community see that in some instances it is the subgroup of African American students who are not achieving well enough on the state test. They hear about schools devoting resources to help these students achieve proficiency. Instead of supporting the efforts of the schools, they worry that all the resources are being devoted to "those kids," that their own children are being left behind.

Any school not making Annual Yearly Progress is required by federal law to offer parents the opportunity to transfer their children to another school. I believe that the intent of the law was to allow members of subgroups the opportunity to move their children from a low-performing school to a school that would offer them a greater chance of success. However, I do not believe that this intent has been carried through to standard practice.  The people who transfer to new schools are not members of underachieving subgroups in low-performing schools; in fact they are the highest achieving students. They are not leaving low-performing schools: the average ACT score for high schoolers in our district is 25.6. These transfer students are leaving the most ethnically diverse schools. 

The five most diverse schools in our district have been on the SINA list for the past two years.  As a result of being on this list they have been required by federal law to offer students the opportunity to transfer. They have lost students for two years and as a result of decreased enrollment they have lost teachers, too. The students they lose are the highest achieving students.  These high achieving students leave and scores drop again. Their transfers set up a cycle of low scores that will eventually lead to state intervention if we do not put a stop to it. Schools serving our most diverse neighborhoods will be forced to close. The law that was created to keep our students from being left behind will be the cause of their school's demise.

I do not know how to solve this problem. I don't know how to convince my neighbors that our neighborhood school is still filled with highly qualified teachers who are doing everything in their power to make sure that ALL students are learning and growing. The school my children attend filed their SINA plan in October and I had the privilege of reading it and offering feedback. The faculty there is vigilant in their efforts to help all learners achieve proficiency. This year they are differentiating instruction and using curriculum based measurements to track student growth. Even though their AYP on norm-referenced tests may not reflect the growth they're seeing, we already have evidence that students are growing and making progress this year. I hope that someday our legislators and neighbors will look at this growth and support it, that they will accept the changing landscape of our community and appreciate the richness it offers. If they do not, No Child Left Behind will ironically be the cause of that which it attempted to stop--the failure of our most at-risk children.


  1. You're right, this really was an underappreciated post. Public school and standardized testing can be very frustrating indeed. I think all of the things you mentioned can and do happen. Someday when I have the energy to go into it, I'll write about our school experiences...

  2. Thank you for for reading and appreciating this post, Grace. I hope you will write about your school experiences some day. Most of the west coast perspectives I read on the subject of public education come from teachers and so-called ed reformers. It would be very interesting to hear about it from a parent's perspective. Please let me know if you write about it!

  3. These types of tests have been an albatross around my neck, Jen. I think I got one of the lowest scores possible on my PSAT. I never bothered with the SAT because I knew the results would be the same. Yet, I was an honors and AP student who passed both AP English and AP French and graduated with an above 4.0 GPA.

    I had to find a work-around to get into the university I wanted to attend and when I transferred there made dean's list. What explains this? The only thing these tests did for me was to plant a seed of doubt in my mind about my abilities. Didn't matter how well I did outside the tests, I always questioned myself. And, sadly, still do. Standardized tests had the reverse effect on me. I'd be interested in knowing how many of us "bad" test takers are out there.

    With our son who's a non-traditional learner, I worry. Test scores will NOT be how I measure his success.

    I'd be interesting on hearing your thoughts on the movie "Waiting for Superman."

    What bothers me is how little discussion I hear from the top about "addressing" poverty.

    Thank you for writing this.

  4. Ezzy, I truly believe that the only thing standardized tests measure is a person's ability to take standardized tests. There are many, many people who are extremely creative and intelligent but cannot do well on fill-in-the-bubble tests. You are in good company with your low score, I assure you. The SAT, in particular the version that was administered when you and I would have been applying for colleges, was reported as being biased against anyone who was not a white male. I believe the makers of the test have tried to remedy that, but you should know that a lot of research proven the bias of that test, and you should not let your scores continue to haunt you. http://her.hepg.org/content/8465k88616hn4757/ links to an article in the Harvard Review about the SATs bias. There are countless other articles, too. 

    I'm glad that you recognize that your son is a non-traditional learner. Knowing that, and having the courage to embrace it, is not easy to do.  

    I received "Waiting for Superman" as a gift, but have not yet watched it. Many educators on Twitter have been so angered by it that I wasn't sure I wanted to watch. But most of those educators teach in traditional settings, so we don't share many of the same experiences or viewpoints. I will have to watch it and see for myself what it's all about.

    I, too, am bothered by the fact that poverty is not being discussed. It ties directly to academic achievement, and until we do something to assist families in need, there is no amount of assistance the government can give schools that will help improve student performance. Kids can't learn to read when they have empty bellies.


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