Thursday, October 4, 2012

In Virginia, the Bigotry of Crude Expectations

Recently (or not so recently by the time I'm posting this), the state of Virginia was granted a waiver from NCLB requirements. This has been a relief for many, but it's also caused further stress, in that it exchanges one yoke for another. Fairfax County, for example, had no plans to evaluate their teachers according to the standardized test scores of their students, but now is being required to due to conditions of the waiver.

However, because the goals in the waiver application for some children are lower than for others, there have also been cries of low expectations and racismVirginia has since re-written their goals. Certainly, we should not have one set of expectations for one set of children and a lower one for another set simply based on their socio-economic status or race--the outcry is understandable. 

But, to me, those folks have got their eyes on the wrong prize. If boosting scores on low-quality multiple choice tests is their greatest educational goal for Virginia's children, then they've got very low and crude expectations in the first place, and our schools and our children will only rise so high as the low and crude expectation that have been set.

This past summer, I finally read Linda Darling-Hammond's great work, The Flat World and Education. From that, it's clear that Virginia schools also need "adequate funding and equitable opportunities to learn" and "intelligent, reciprocal accountability:"
In the current prevailing paradigm in the United States, accountability has been defined primarily as the administration of tests and the attachment of sanctions to low scores. Yet, from the perspective of children and parents, this approach does not ensure high-quality teaching each year, nor does it ensure that students have the courses, books, materials, supports services, and other resources they need to learn. In this paradigm, two-way accountability does not exist: Although the child and the school are accountable to the state for test performance, the state is not accountable to the child or school for providing adequate educational resources.
Furthermore, test-based accountability schemes have sometimes undermined education for the most vulnerable students, by narrowing curriculum and by creating incentives to exclude low-achieving students in order to boost test scores. Indeed, although tests can provide some of the information needed for an accountability system, they are not the system itself. Genuine accountability should heighten the probability of good practices occurring for all students, reduce the probability of harmful practice, and ensure that there are self-corrective mechanisms in the system--feedback, assessments, , and incentives--that support continual improvement. 
If education is to actually improve and the system is to be accountable  to students, accountability should be focused on ensuring the competence of teachers and leaders, the quality of instruction, and the adequacy of resources, as well as the capacity of the system to trigger improvements. In addition to standards of learning for students, which focus on the system's efforts on meaningful goals, this will require standards of practice that can guide professional training, development, teaching, and management at the classroom, school, and system levels, and opportunity to learn standards that ensure appropriate re sources to achieve desired outcomes. (p. 301)

In Virginia, many make the mistake of using "achievement" and "test scores" interchangeably, as if that's all achievement is. What about research papers, essays, and creative and analytic writing? What about works of art and musical performances? What about science projects, spelling bees, reading olympics, robotics contests, debate clubs, student government, conflict resolution, and mini-UN? What about vocational education? What about teacher-generated assessments and tests? What about looking at the education of ALL of Virginia's children like this Virginia superintendent does? Oh right, subjects beyond reading and math are not important, especially not for low-income children and children of color who need to get their math and reading test scores up before they can engage in rich and meaningful learning. For sub group students, it's "test scores" as "achievement" first and only. 

As long as policy makers and pundits continue to conflate "achievement" with "test scores," and as long as the public accepts that, the achievement gap will remain. As long as opportunity and equity gaps remain, so will the achievement gap. Excluding students who struggle to score high enough on low-quality standardized tests from participating in rich and meaningful learning and making test scores the currency of our public education system is the lowest expectation of all.