Will This Be on the Test?
March 6, 2010 |  by Rich Shea

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The resources at a child’s disposal should also be considered. Before entering kindergarten, it’s likely that a child in a middle- or upper-middle-class neighborhood will attend a pre-K program that offers the kinds of instruction and stimulation that recent brain research has shown to be integral to early-childhood development. The same, Hardiman says, goes for being a child in a house where at least one parent is well-educated. Most kids from low-income neighborhoods don’t have these advantages when starting elementary school.

And during the school-age years, they suffer from what’s known as the “summer slide,” the absence of intellectual stimulation when they’re not attending classes. While better-off students have opportunities to keep

up with their studies—via social, travel, and work opportunities—most low-income kids don’t, making it harder to catch up when school resumes. “So by the time they get to high school, there’s a huge gap,” explains Hardiman.

Ideally, a school “community” would provide students with the resources they need and help determine which skills should be mastered for entry into college and the work force. As an example of the latter, Hardiman points to the Partnership for 21st Century Skills, an advocacy organization made up of businesses, education leaders, and policymakers nationwide. The Partnership has put together a K–12 “framework” that includes skills in “learning and innovation,” “life and career,” and “information, media, and technology.” It also suggests core subjects, including foreign languages, arts, economics, science, geography, and civics.

Hardiman, who is not a member of the Partnership, doesn’t suggest that all of these subjects be tested, only that schools show evidence of an expanded core curriculum. With that in mind, she would eliminate the “high-stakes” impact of standardized tests by broadening the scope of each school’s annual report card, which currently focuses on math and reading scores. Among other measures, she would include student attendance; results of surveys on how teachers, students, and parents feel about the school; evidence of student participation in multiple subjects; and statistics on teachers’ performance based on classroom observations.

JAMES MCPARTLAND, DIRECTOR OF THE Center for Social Organization of Schools at Johns Hopkins who also participated in the NCLB panel, would go a step further, including graduation rates in high school report cards as a way to address the dropout crisis. He says that the biggest reason students, especially those in low-income schools, drop out is that they’re frustrated by seldom, if ever, meeting standards. Part of the problem, he adds, is that many schools “game the system,” or focus their energies on helping only the “bubble students,” those scoring just below proficient, to increase their standardized test scores—so as to meet minimum AYP requirements.

Such schools, he says, “gain in terms of test averages if the lower-achieving kids aren’t there. If they’re absent, if they’re left back, if they drop out—that, in a way, helps the district look better on the average. But of course that’s self-defeating; the kids who need the education most are disregarded.” Setting a specific graduation-rate standard would hold entire districts—including those schools preparing students for high school—accountable.

As a way to boost graduation rates, McPartland wouldn’t let low-achieving students off the hook. “We want to keep the standards high,” he says, “but we want to give those students extra time and extra help so they can live up to the expectations.” Rather than stick with what he considers simplistic proficiency ratings—“basic,” “proficient,” and “advanced,” for example—he would establish as many as 10 ratings, or “cut points,” without labeling them. They’d start at “level 1,” then go to “level 2,” and so on. That way, the stakes for each test wouldn’t be so high, and teachers could concentrate on tailoring instruction to individual students. “We want to encourage schools serving the poorest kids to also teach to their minds, to help them grow as thinkers,” McPartland says. “Right now, we’re too narrow in our cut points.”

NCLB is narrow in so many ways, argues Slavin, that it stifles innovation. Just as the medical field invests heavily in curing diseases and improving health care, ESEA should offer incentives using federal-level resources that already exist. Citing one subject as an example, he asks, “What if we had, coming from the [U.S.] Department of Education and the National Science Foundation, dynamite science programs known to be effective and evaluated on the most stringent designs to establish their effectiveness? We could say to schools, ‘If you want to use one of these, we’ve got the funds available for you to do so—to pay for materials, professional development, and so on.’” The same, he says, could be done for other subjects as well.

As it turns out, President Barack Obama’s administration is already moving in this direction. As part of its stimulus package, roughly $4 billion is dedicated to the Race to the Top Fund, which rewards states showing proof that, among other things, they’re working to improve teacher quality and develop college- and workplace-appropriate standards. While the president is expected to demand the same in a reauthorized ESEA, the three SOE professors concur that, during the design process, students themselves need to be taken into consideration.

“We should be able to ask those putting the bill together, ‘So, where did your kids go to school? And what did you like about that school? What made you send them there?’” says Hardiman. Then, once a list has been compiled, those favorable practices should be included in the bill, so that they are “happening everywhere,” she adds.

The long-term result of any education law, Slavin believes, should be schools focused not only on tests but on effective teaching practices that make classrooms engaging for students and teachers alike. He adds: “If the thing that you’re trying to work toward is not a situation in which kids are actively engaged and highly motivated, seeing school as something valuable to them, then the system cannot move forward.”

Rich Shea, a former executive editor of Teacher Magazine, is a writer who lives with his family in Columbia, Maryland.