Monday, August 6, 2012

A Cloudy Start to the New School Year

For all of us who have ever attended, sent kids to, or worked in schools (and especially for those who fall into all three categories), September is the alpha month, the start of a brand new school year, with all of the hope that new beginnings entail. While this may be a cliché on which back-to-school-sales thrive, there is authentic emotional truth in the renewal that a new school year offers.

However, the immediate reality of picking up the loose threads of learning from June quickly tarnishes September’s shine. Although I’ve expressed some ambivalence about required summer reading, summer learning loss is a real phenomenon that hits struggling students most detrimentally.

Moreover, in our state’s public schools, high-stakes standardized tests assess learning from the previous year in October of the following year (with the exception of science, which is tested in the spring). Newly minted fourth graders will have the opportunity to demonstrate their third grade learning when they take the New England Common Assessment Program (NECAP) tests next month. To some extent, this means that they will not have the opportunity to pursue new learning in earnest until six weeks after school starts. As much as we’d love for September to be a fresh start, it’s actually a critical time to recap, reinforce and review previous learning. Not that there’s necessarily anything wrong with that. No matter when--or if--the NECAPs were administered, some review would clearly be in order in order to start the new school year on firm footing.

My concern about the timing of the NECAPs is aimed at raising awareness about the practice of according these tests the considerable power that they currently possess, even though they tell only a small part of a school’s story. If you want to get into the pros and cons of high-stakes standardized tests in a big way, let me take you out for a cup of coffee and we’ll have a fine time hashing it out.  Seriously, I’d love that, but I am not going to do so right here in detail. What I am going to do is question whether the Rhode Island Department of Education (RIDE) made the right move by ranking and labeling schools according to 2011 NECAP scores.

In order to qualify for a waiver from some of the requirements of the United States Department of Education’s No Child Left Behind legislation, RIDE created a new way to identify struggling schools, which resulted in a ranking and labeling of all of our state’s schools. While the reasons for and meaning of these labels are not as clear as one would hope, they can be described generally as follows. Schools labeled Commended, Leading, and Typical require no interventions. Schools labeled Warning, Focus, and Priority require interventions and changes that will play out over the next three years. The system strove to identify schools that had not made enough overall progress according to the NECAPs and schools that were not doing enough to close the achievement gaps among the subgroups that comprise their student bodies. Over the course of the school year, negatively labeled schools are required to develop and implement plans to address their identified shortcomings (which may have been the result of inadequate measures of teaching and learning that happened two years ago). If you crave more detail, visit RIDE’s website and this PDF PPSD presentation, shared with the City Council last week and posted on Councilman Sam Zurier's website.

What does this tell us? Nothing new. Most of the professionals and many students and family members who are part of our school communities know that their schools are serving some students very well and others less so. Our city's schools--especially the elementary and middle schools--are the places of learning for 23,000 children, many of whom face significant economic, health, school preparation, and other challenges. Nevertheless, educators know full well that they are accountable for serving all students effectively, not just those who are rested, well fed, unstressed, and otherwise ready to learn. With the data that RIDE used to create its rankings, in combination with arguably more meaningful measures, many schools have already been addressing their challenges. Perhaps this will ensure that all do so, which is good, but it's silly to think that most educators weren't already looking at data to create better outcomes for all students.

Not only do RIDE’s new labels not enlighten us, they don’t come with any meaningful support. Very little federal and no new state funding is available for schools to develop and implement improvement plans. Moreover, this focus on test scores suggests that we should dwell overmuch on the meaning of the small slice of data that high stakes standardized test scores provide, and it encourages the mythology that the United States is in the throes of an education crisis which is a distortion on which much of the energy of politically motivated pro-privatization education reform has been based.

While this many not have been the intention, RIDE’s labels have had the effect of needlessly shaming schools, freaking out plenty of people who don't have the time or capacity to dig deeply, and obscuring their complex realities without offering any real support. For anyone who feels that our neighborhood’s schools are somehow diminished as a result of this rejiggering, please know that you don’t know the whole story. I am confident that this will not knock our educators off their game, and I hope that September can retain at least a bit of its shine for those young people who need it most.


A version of this post will appear in September's East Side Monthly.

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