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Below the Bar: Why We (Can’t) Forget Students Left Behind

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This fall, during the first round of parent-teacher conferences at the Washington, D.C. charter school where I teach, I sat down with the mother of a sweet-tempered 10th grader who reads at the level of a 3rd grader. As always when I've had to discuss a student’s shortcomings with a parent, I was nervous.

“Shawn is a real asset to our class because he’s so well-behaved,” I said, “but I think he might need some extra support to get him up to speed in reading.” I opened a folder in which I had placed a printout of Shawn’s abysmal scores on the standards-aligned Measures of Academic Progress Test. Before I could make my move, however, Shawn’s mother leaned forward and looked me squarely in the eye. “I heard that before,” she said. “That’s why he has that IEP thing from back in middle school. But let me tell you, it don’t do no good, because the problem is that he’s plain lazy. He’s failing every one of his classes. You got a solution to that?”

I resisted the urge to squirm in my seat. Shawn’s problem is not that he is lazy. To the contrary, when I ask him to read in class, he sits quietly, moves his eyes over the words, and laboriously tries to answer whatever writing prompt follows—despite the fact that the text makes no sense to him. The real issue is that Shawn’s learning deficits make it impossible for him to pass the District of Columbia Comprehensive Assessment System test given to 10th graders in April, and so my school, consumed by the need to make Adequate Yearly Progress this year, has chosen to devote what few resources we have to students who are closer to the bar: Shawn does not qualify for our English Academy program, which targets students whose reading scores indicate that a “push” might enable them to pass the test, and we do not have a reading specialist because there is no funding for one.

I decided that honesty was best. “I can’t promise that Shawn will pass,” I said. “But if he comes afterschool to work with me, I can work with him on his reading assignments so that he comprehends the material better.” I tried to sound confident, but the truth is that I have no training in beginning reading.

Left Behind

There are a lot of students like Shawn, and the problem for them is twofold. First of all, they were left behind long ago by failing schools and failing school systems. It is hard to imagine how students who can barely decode multi-syllable words could be promoted to high school, but it happens. Theoretically, their needs should be addressed by special education programs, but in schools like mine, these programs are chronically overloaded and underfunded.

To make things worse, the schools that inherit kids like Shawn are under immense pressure to focus their energy on students whose skills put them within striking distance of passing state tests. Year after year I have seen this scenario play out at my school: We offer ever-more support and incentives for the “bubble kids” who might be able to score proficient on the DC-CAS, while we continue to neglect the students who most desperately need our help.

This is not to say that I believe the No Child Left Behind Act has done more damage than good. To the contrary, I have seen the accountability movement inspire my school to become more rigorous and student-focused. But cases like Shawn’s show that the worthy ambition of getting 100 percent of students “caught up” by 2014 has its dangers. Until we can reframe what success means for students like him, and until we have better support systems to enable this success, they will continue to sit invisibly in the back of their classrooms until the day they stop showing up.

What needs to happen involves some tough honesty. All of us—teachers, administrators, policymakers, and parents—need to acknowledge that even as our public schools become more rigorous, there will still be students with serious skills-deficits who come up through the system and must be served. We need to find resources for them and we need to think realistically about what goals they should be working toward. This means a boost in funding as well as a shift toward valuing progress alongside proficiency—changes that I can only hope the new administration will consider seriously.

The bottom line is that there needs to be a reason to push back against the helplessness and denial that so easily takes root when it comes to students like Shawn. A policy that supports schools in supporting their most struggling students would give everyone a reason to hope, and hope can go a long way.

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