Cusp Kids

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The cusp is the place to be. Money, time and resources flow toward that cusp, a magic academic line that separates students who meet expectations from students who fail to meet expectations. The line becomes most clearly defined on state standardized tests, but also lurks in benchmark tests and other measurements that affect evaluations and merit pay. In this time of testing madness, if the push is to raise the percentage of students who “meet expectations,”* then the cusp kids are the kids with the most potential. If test results suggest Jaquan and Shaniqua missed meeting expectations by only a few points, then Jaquan and Shaniqua join the group of students who are most likely to be able to cross the expectations bar, raising the total percentage of students who “pass” the test.

I have had principals tell me directly to focus on these cusp kids in tutoring groups and classes. Teachers form groups to identify their cusp kids and determine which skills will help these students to boost their scores. Targeted instruction begins afterwards, often small group instruction within a larger class. In this time when whole-group instruction is frowned upon as pedagogically old-fashioned, breaking classes into groups has become almost de rigueur in education. The groups are formed. The triaging begins.

Students too far below the cusp and students safely above the cusp may be almost ignored. As in war, with our resources overwhelmed, we leave the grievously wounded to die while providing only light care to those we expect will manage on their own. In a fifty minute period, a teacher may spend half an hour with the cusp kids and 10 minutes with each of the other two groups. Materials will be prepared to keep all students occupied so the teacher can focus on the cusp group. Those materials frequently are regrettably easy; the teacher does not want to be interrupted with questions.

Eduhonesty: I’m not going to editorialize much. This scenario is occurring in lower-scoring schools across the nation, largely because it’s genuinely the best bet for raising the percentage of students who meet expectations, the main goal for many poor and urban school districts. The last time I was instructed to use this strategy, I was also told to keep my cusp group small, preferably at 6 kids or less, with an intense focus on these kids. That left the my cusp group’s classmates mostly on their own.

When scores count so heavily, and lower scores bring so much scrutiny and misery to administrators and teachers alike, this preferential treatment for cusp kids becomes a natural by-product of the testing system. I can’t say I approve. But I am not going to slam my administrators either. In war and in testing, sometimes the best options are ugly. Resources are limited. We end up putting our resources where we expect they will do the most good.

*This push to “meet expectations” can be found in almost all public schools, a legacy from No Child Left Behind.