Education Opinion

High Stakes and Unintended Consequences

By LeaderTalk Contributor — April 20, 2009 4 min read
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by Kevin W.Riley, Ed.D.
El Milagro Weblog

Two weeks from today we will administer the 2009 version of the California Standards Test-- eight testing days of cheerleading and managing modified schedules and erasing stray pencil marks. When it’s over, we’ll box up the answer sheets and dutifully send them to Sacramento where we will await the verdict with blind faith in the accuracy of an invisible scoring system.

Blind faith because for all that is at stake with this thing, there is an extraordinary lack of control over the outcomes. And make no mistake, we have a healthy regard for the importance of the results and for the unintended consequences engendered by another testing season. How high can the high stakes be?

• These test results will follow every one of our students for the rest of their school careers.
• Future teachers will rely on these results when considering students for afterschool programs or AP classes; for participation in athletics and performing arts; for placement in the bluebirds reading group or tracking them into a school life of eternal and uninspired remediation.
• Specialists will determine that some students are gifted, by virtue of the advanced score in math or reading. Others will diagnose sometimes-arbitrary learning disabilities because a student scored significantly lower than they otherwise would have been expected.
• Schools will (illegally) consult the test results of new students registering at the counter to determine “if there is any room” or whether they should try the school down the street.
• Others will consult the scores as the final straw before banishing ‘delinquent’ and chronically low-performers to continuation school or independent study or homeschooling or some other equivalent of learning in Siberia. (Watch how frequent this occurs in...oh, let’s just say... the weeks immediately before testing! When I was the director of the juvenile court schools for San Diego County, we could bank on a swelling enrollment of students kicked out of their neighborhood schools just weeks before the CST!)

Can high stakes get much higher? Yes... actually they can.

Presidents and governors and mayors and school board members all run on the promise that they will raise the scores--if not the stakes-- in high stakes testing.
• Superintendents can extend their brief tenures by another year and principals can delay their “return to the classroom” on the strength of a good test outcome. Or not.
• Veteran, tenured teachers feel the pressure too. And since most boilerplate union language allows them to transfer to the district’s higher achieving schools as a benefit of seniority... they often do.
• Meanwhile, low achieving schools experience the constant turnover of veteran teachers seeking higher ground and novice teachers prematurely folding their careers for lack of support or training.
• And so low performing schools (and schools in low income areas) are far more likely to be staffed by teachers with less experience. Younger teachers. Teachers beginning to raise families of their own. Teachers who, when they are raising families of their own, take extended maternity leave and entrust their students to itinerant, long-term substitute teachers who have far less experience than the inexperienced teachers they are replacing.

But the stakes get even higher when you track the migratory patterns of families and wealth within a community.

• Young, education-savvy couples consult websites like greatschools.net to determine where the best schools are in a community-- as determined by metrics like the Academic Performance Index (API).
• So higher test scores create a better reputation for the school district and a stronger selling point for real estate agents.
• Ultimately, the shifting and moving of families within a community are more likely determined by the API of schools and districts than any other factor (aside from the cost of homes.)
• Just as the veteran teachers flee low performing schools, so too do high performing students! As their parents become more financially stable, they will join the migration toward higher API scores and the illusion of better schools.
• Thus our school communties continue to shift according to the integration of public education’s two most consistent outliers-- socio-economic status and API scores. It’s a brain drain.

So when we administer the California Standards test beginning on May 4, we will do so fully aware of the high stakes with which we are playing: children’s school careers and the scope of life opportunities afforded them, the careers of educators and politicians, and the distribution of talent and resources within our communities.

There is, in the end, an incongruence here. We have a universal desire to improve our schools and our students’ learning, but a system of assessment that produces a host of unintended consequences-- not the least of which-- is the perpetuation of the very achievement gaps we seek to explain and mitigate through high stakes testing.

We’ll do our part to buck the data trends. El Milagro. High stakes and we are “all in”.

The opinions expressed in LeaderTalk are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.