Setting the Fires We Have to Put Out

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I have become convinced that furious efforts to raise standardized test scores ironically are directly responsible for creating misbehaving students, often in tandem with that additional one-two punch of subject failures or near-failures in English and mathematics. Too often, I have seen efforts to raise scores lower the scores of students instead, those students who do not fit our test-directed lessons.

As we stuff classrooms with students ranging from a third-grade level to a ninth-grade level academically and then hand those students common preparatory materials chosen to provide optimal test preparation for grade-level tests, we create a group of lost students who simply are too far behind to succeed with the material they have been given. A student reading at a second-grade level and doing math at a third-grade level cannot do seventh grade work on any regular basis. When that student confronts a problem like the following, misbehavior may easily follow:

The quotient of forty-two and a number is three. Which answer or answers describe this problem?

  1. 42/x = 3
  2. 42x = 3
  3. 42 – x = 3
  4. 42/3 = x -3

Not all students sit quietly staring at incomprehensible activity sheets. The kids at the bottom know they are at the bottom. Even if teachers work to create an emotionally safe-learning environment — always a top priority in an academically-diverse class — those kids realize they have fallen behind most of their peers. How do they feel? Angry? Embarrassed? Shut-down? Scared? How many simply feel like raising hell to break up the boredom of the day? “Incomprehensible” and “boring” are synonymous for most kids.

As we analyze our mountain of test data, almost all the teachers I know feel long-term effects of failed tests and classes are receiving too little attention. Pundits talk at length about test-score numbers, but ignore the students behind those numbers. We know repeated, failed tests and quizzes are excellent predictors of long-term academic failure and even dropping out of school. What we don’t know is the extent to which those failed tests and quizzes might cause long-term academic failure.

Are student failures the result of education gone wrong? Clearly, many politicians and educational administrators have set out to make that case. But what if student failures are not merely reflections of America’s educational crises, crises that affect some groups disproportionately, but are the actual source of present and future failures? Students cannot learn what we do not teach them while we are preparing them for the annual state test instead. What if current broad scale strategies for improving education, especially those related to raising standards and beating tests, are actually hurting groups of students rather than helping them?