Tuesday, May 12, 2015

The Soft (and Not-So-Soft) Bigotry of High Stakes Testing

Posted By on Tue, May 12, 2015 at 6:00 PM

Monday I wrote about seven Arizona schools that have been accused of cheating on the high stakes AIMS test. I decided to look at the percentage of students on free/reduced lunch at the schools, and here's what I found.

Two schools have more than 90 percent of their students on free/reduced lunch—Wade Carpenter Middle School and James Sandoval/Crown Point High School. One has over 75 percent—Integrity Education Centre. One has over 50 percent—Red Rock Elementary School.

Two—Edge and Children's Success Academy—are charter schools that don't report their free/reduced lunch percentage, like lots of charters which don't furnish student lunches. The Star's Tim Steller wrote about Edge in 2013.
Edge High School in Tucson takes in students from difficult backgrounds - about one out of 10 is homeless, many are parents or pregnant, some are sixth- or seventh-year seniors - and helps them graduate.

Last year the state recognized each of Edge's three charter high schools - with a D grade. Two more years of D's and the schools will be on the road toward a failing status.
All I can find about Children's Success Academy is that it's on E. Bilby near S. Nogales Hwy in Tucson with about 80 students and a B state grade. It's in a low income area, and most of the nearby schools have C and D grades, which means its students are likely from low income families, though I can't say for certain.

The outlier here is Metcalf Elementary with 34 percent of its students on free/reduced lunch. It's a new school with no state grade I could find.

Here are a few schools not—repeat, not—on the list, along with their free/reduced lunch percentages: Copper Ridge Elementary in Scottsdale Unified (3 percent); Sonoran Trails Middle in Cave Creek (7 percent); Catalina Foothills High (12 percent).

The Atlanta, Georgia, schools where staff is going to jail for cheating serve mainly low income students. So do the Washington, DC, schools where then-Superintendent Michelle Rhee bragged about the boost in test scores during her tenure (she made the covers of Time and Newsweek), but no one did a serious investigation when evidence pointed to cheating in the schools with the greatest "improvement." And here in Arizona, the schools cited for cheating mostly serve low income, low achieving students.

You're not likely to find overt erase-and-replace cheating on tests in high rent schools, for a good, logical reason. Most students at those schools get high scores on their high stakes tests. Arizona's B and A rated schools are clustered in high income areas, and the difference between a B and an A is a feather in your cap, not keeping your job or keeping your school open. Blatant cheating is a high risk endeavor. If you're caught, you're in serious trouble. It's not worth the risk when your students' scores pretty much take care of themselves.

But if a school has a D rating and is in danger of falling into the failing category, or if individual teachers fear their jobs will be on the line if their students's scores are too low, well, desperate times can call for desperate measures. It may be worth the risk of changing some wrong answers to right answers.

Remember how No Child Left Behind was sold as a way to raise up students who were doing poorly in school—to combat, in President Bush's words, "the soft bigotry of low expectations"? Test scores haven't shown any significant improvement since 2001, so that hasn't worked out so well. But high stakes testing has provided a target-rich environment for anyone who wants to blame and shame low achieving students, their teachers and their "failing schools." And it's created an environment that tempts staffs at low income schools to improve student scores by any means necessary, legal or illegal.

I'm detecting a pattern here. The War on Drugs was supposed to lessen the scourge of drug use and addiction in low income, minority areas. It's arguably made things worse. Zero Tolerance was supposed to lock up the bad guys and make high crime areas safer. Along with the War on Drugs, Zero Tolerance has led to mass incarceration, done little or nothing to improve neighborhoods and encouraged the kind of abusive, sometimes lethal police/citizen interaction we've seen in Ferguson, Baltimore and elsewhere. And No Child Left Behind has been a failure at improving our schools while it's made students and teachers in low income schools the objects of scorn and derision. You've gotta wonder whether there's another agenda working here other than the help-the-poor-and-minorities pitch used to sell the three programs.

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