Testing dooms schools to fail

February 24, 2016

The Community Schools Initiative won't work if it emphasizes test scores, writes Marilena Marchetti, an occupational therapist in the Bronx, in a CityLimits.org article.

A PAINFUL truth about homelessness in New York City is that our population of homeless children is the same size as the entire city of Trenton, N.J.--and growing. In a case where common sense and scientific inquiry neatly overlap, the Institute for Children, Poverty and Homelessness reported last year that when it comes to education, homeless students as a group have the worst outcomes on almost every measure, including performance on standardized tests, absenteeism and school dropout. The systemic causes and consequences of homelessness are deeply entrenched. Fortunately, with advocacy groups, the mayor and elected officials calling to support education policies like the Community Schools Initiative, it may be possible to make a difference in homeless students' lives here and now.

The mayor's Community Schools Initiative takes serious aim at resolving the issues that span many school communities and that I witness on a daily basis. I work as an occupational therapist in Bronx District 10 where the highest number of homeless students are enrolled. A cornerstone of the initiative is that school sites become resource hubs for vulnerable families, thereby making access to social services and programs easier. The program adopts a "whole child" approach that sees schools as places where social-emotional, mental and physical health are valued as much as academics. Quality and accountability to performance measures are emphasized to reassure families, communities and donors that success matters. Without a doubt, it is a tremendous step in the right direction.

New York City Schools Chancellor Carmen Farińa (back left) and Mayor Bill de Blasio (standing) visit a school
New York City Schools Chancellor Carmen Farińa (back left) and Mayor Bill de Blasio (standing) visit a school (Ed Reed)

HIGH EXPECTATIONS have taken hold, flowing from the desperate circumstances of so many school communities alongside the financial investments and political clout associated with the program. Despite the many positives, I fear the Community Schools Initiative is operating with an internal contradiction that may doom it to fail if it is not corrected. The major problem is this: All the wonderful programming and promises of the Community Schools Initiative could be taken away if, after three years' time, standardized test scores are not raised. Interestingly, nowhere in the 43-page Community Schools Strategic Plan are the terms "standardized test" or "high stakes test" used, as those phrases have been rightfully maligned by the opt-out movement. No matter the semantics, the writing is on the wall. The plan talks about "tiered interventions that impact large numbers of students and families," "aligned program supports and services that promote student proficiency in Common Core standards," "processes for ongoing review of student data" and "established performance improvement metrics and processes," all of which are references to testing and its repercussions.

Later in the document, the following is stated:

Within the Community Schools Initiative, on-going data collection will inform practice, track progress, and connect data with targeted outcomes [emphasis added]. Data collection will include both qualitative and quantitative data, both of which will allow city government leadership and researchers the opportunity to track community schools' outcomes (pp. 29).

It isn't necessary to say directly what teachers, families and students in community schools can read between the lines: You must pass or you will perish. Just like adding one drop of red dye to a glass of water turns the entire liquid red, so goes the entire school culture when standardized testing is applied and laden with grave possible consequences. Tying test scores to funding streams and to the possibility that a school would be protected from being shut down reinforces the fear, anxiety and sense of instability that is meant to be alleviated for our children living on the brink. Must the issue of survival for them always remain an open question? Imagine struggling to improve teaching and learning under this pretext.

Chalk it up to the forcefulness of the opt-out movement that high-stakes testing has finally been dialed down, albeit only slightly. Thanks to the many parents, teachers and students who spoke up, we can no longer deny that high stakes testing leads to a narrowing of the curriculum and all manner of stress for our young people. It undermines children's interest in learning and teachers' ability to engage them. When standardized-test results play even the tiniest part in determining if a community school be allowed to stay open and continue receiving financial support for special services and programming, it sabotages the goal to boost academic achievement for students who need it most.

To be clear, standardized testing should be eliminated in all schools for the reasons stated. However, I would argue the need to remove them from schools serving vulnerable populations is even more dire.

A school's test scores can become like a target on its back. Last year I and other activists in the UFT's social justice caucus Movement of Rank and File Educators (MORE) noticed a disturbing trend: charter operators looking to expand or open new sites more frequently made proposals to do so in schools identified by the city and state as "struggling." In order to take the bold steps that are needed, we must come to terms with the fact that pass or perish testing policies along with the ever present threat of takeover by charter operators who prey on struggling schools is counterproductive to the project of making public education great for all. Nothing short of doing away with standardized tests and putting a moratorium on charter takeover at community schools will do to begin to turn around the crisis in public education.

WHY IS this so? One way to picture student vulnerability is quantitatively, like a point on a spectrum with "most vulnerable" and "least vulnerable" on either end marked by differences in material endowments--two-parent home, adequate food, clothing, shelter, etc. Better yet is to imagine vulnerability as categorical, in terms that are best understood through the findings of the Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACE) Study.

Completed at the turn of the century, the groundbreaking ACE Study found that differences in health outcomes are directly related to experiences of abuse, neglect and other extreme hardship endured in one's childhood. People with higher ACE scores (or number of adverse childhood experiences) have greater risk of contracting conditions ranging from heart disease and diabetes to substance abuse, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder and depression.

From homelessness to the incarceration of a parent to food insecurity, students enter not only community schools, but many schools, having experienced a range of difficult life events. Indeed, the trauma perpetrated on our young people constitutes a public health crisis that cannot be more fully explored here. We should take this to mean that while our students may be lacking food, shelter and regular opportunities to spend quality time with loved ones, their inner worlds require our sensitivity and concern as well. For example, they may need extra care, support, patience and time to form trusting bonds with adults and peers; to tolerate frustration when they are confronted with a challenge or must wrap their head around a new concept; to filter out all the environmental stimuli that competes with the teacher for their attention; and to successfully regulate their emotions and state of alertness so they feel confident and comfortable to learn.

When we are talking about schools that struggle to maintain high test scores, we are necessarily talking about schools with children who have high ACEs. I would argue that pressuring students with high ACEs to pass or perish adds undue stress to their daily lives and jeopardizes their ability to thrive in school. Furthermore, it isn't enough to allow students unlimited time to take a test they experience as their life depending on. Policy makers who are committed to assuring education equity across race, income and ability should explicitly consider the findings of the ACE study along with updated efforts to translate it and similar studies into practice frameworks for creating trauma-sensitive schools.

While many of these ideas are implicit in the "whole child" approach the mayor touts as part of his new initiative, the effort falls short. It is hypocritical to say on the one hand that schools should respect the "whole child" while on the other to insist those very children be subjected to test pressure we know directly impacts mental health and, by extension, learning. The compounding effects of high-stakes testing for high ACE students cannot be ignored; the tests must be removed altogether. In schools in poor communities that could face closure if they don't make the grade, tests with stakes attached amount to telling a student this: your worth is not a foregone conclusion; it is "to be determined." Never mind that what is To Be Determined will have no basis in the myriad human qualities--compassion, humor, wit, empathy, creativity, ingenuity, originality, grit--that truly great education helps to unfold in students.

I find myself asking, why? Why must we take children who have to struggle to believe they matter in a world that ceaselessly tells them otherwise and force on them a measure we already know is biased and merely a reflection of socioeconomic status? It hurts my heart when I think about all the things that complicate my students' lives and that one of the main institutions designed to put them on equal footing with their whiter, wealthier peers can't live up to its promise. Yet.

First published at CityLimits.org.

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