Viewpoints

What happens when school reformers fixate on numbers

Students work on computers in November in a freshman biology class at Lake Mead Christian Academy in Henderson, Nev. Standardized tests are mandatory for Nevada private schools participating in the state’s school choice program.
Students work on computers in November in a freshman biology class at Lake Mead Christian Academy in Henderson, Nev. Standardized tests are mandatory for Nevada private schools participating in the state’s school choice program. AP

It shouldn’t surprise anyone to read about another supposedly phenomenal school accomplishment that ended up being more mirage than miracle.

 
Opinion

The latest example comes from Washington, D.C., where in June, it was widely reported that Ballou High School, where few students tested as proficient in math or English, had nonetheless, incredibly sent all its seniors to college.

Incredible, indeed. When NPR and the local public radio station WAMU joined forces to re-examine the Ballou miracle, they found that half of the graduates had missed at least three months of classes in a single school year. A fifth of them had been absent for more than half the school year. Teachers complained that they had been instructed to give students a grade of 50 percent on assignments they hadn’t even handed in, and that they were pressured to pass students whose work didn’t remotely merit it.

Students complained that they were utterly unprepared for the colleges that everyone had been so proud of them for entering. And credit recovery courses – which have been criticized as too easy – played a big role in their graduations. The NCAA rejects most of these courses for college athletes; why shouldn’t colleges have the same requirements for other students?

More than anything else, though, the Ballou High case teaches us once again that when we place intense pressure on schools to meet certain numbers, they’ll find a way to do it – one that might not involve providing a superior education. Carrots and sticks alone don’t improve schools, certainly not in the absence of funding to reduce class sizes (and teacher workloads), or to help low-income students overcome obstacles.

Improving educational outcomes is hard, complicated, uncertain work. Yet we use test scores not to guide schools toward better curriculum and teaching, but as a measure of how “good” schools and teachers are.

As a result, schools too often have taken shortcuts to better numbers. They’ve taught to the test, and in some cases have engaged in outright cheating. They’ve encouraged low-scoring students to drop out, and some charter schools have made it difficult for lower-achieving students to get in the door. Some school districts, such as San Jose, boasted that all of their students are graduating with a full load of University of California-required A-G courses until further examination showed that they had wildly overstated their success.

And now that the new federal Every Student Succeeds Act requires schools to increase their graduation rates, we’re seeing widespread use of online credit-recovery courses that have not been examined adequately, more students directed to alternative programs so that they’re not included in school dropout rates and more teachers complaining that they’re under pressure to pass failing students.

It would be unfair to say that everything was fine before the school reform movement. Low-income students, especially black and Latino kids, were doing abysmally, and schools weren’t rethinking their practices or priorities to help those students. They were routinely assigned the least experienced teachers and sometimes, year-long rotations of substitute teachers.

But in the process of trying to make things better, reform advocates forgot what school measurement is all about. It’s a proxy – albeit an imperfect one – for determining whether we’re getting closer to the goal. When we’re not, it’s a sign that we should adjust. But too often, the reform movement confuses measurement with the actual goal, which is supposed to be better-educated students, not a meaningless miraculous number.

Karin Klein is a freelance journalist in Orange County who has covered education, science and food policy. She can be contacted at karinkleinmedia@gmail.com. Follow her on Twitter @kklein100.

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