Education Opinion

Taking Standardized Tests to an Extreme

By Walt Gardner — October 17, 2011 3 min read
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Any hope that the controversy over the misuse of standardized test scores had finally run its course evaporated when news about the practice used by a high school in Orange County, California made the headlines.

In an attempt to motivate students, Kennedy High School in La Palma issues color-coded identification cards to students based solely on their individual standardized test scores. The Orange County Register reported that students are required to carry their black, gold or white cards in addition to a spiral-bound homework planner with a cover of a matching color (“Student IDs that reveal test scores deemed illegal,” Oct. 14).

The cards grant students special campus privileges and discounts. A black card is awarded to students who scored “advanced” in all subjects tested. Possession of this coveted card entitles students to free admission to all home athletic events, along with discounts to school dances and at participating local businesses.

Next in line is the gold card, which is given to students who scored “proficient” or above last year on at least two subjects, or who had moved up a level in at least two subjects. Holders get free admission only to specified home athletic games and receive limited discounts.

The white card is distributed to all other students and bestows no benefits. In fact, these students are required to stand in a separate cafeteria line at lunch. By the time holders of the black and gold cards have chosen their lunch, the cafeteria often runs out of the most popular food.

To date, about 1,000 students have black and gold cards, and about 1,400 students hold white cards. Although the school implemented the strategy last spring, it was not until this fall when the practice was expanded did the controversy reach full boil.

First in line to speak up were state education officials who pointed out that the California Education Code protects student privacy. The principal refused to comment, but as pressure from parents mounted, the Anaheim Unified School District said it would look into the matter.

Whatever the outcome, there is a larger issue here that is given short shrift. In an ostensible attempt to promote learning, Kennedy High School instead has stigmatized students by naming and shaming them. At a time when public schools are increasingly populated by poor students and English language learners, this approach is a daily reminder to them that they do not measure up to their classmates. Rather than motivate them, the practice humiliates them.

The practice is reminiscent of the class exercise conducted by a third-grade teacher in Riceville, Iowa in the wake of the assassination of Martin Luther King in 1968 (“Lesson of a Lifetime,” Smithsonian, Sept. 2005). In an attempt to teach her students about the harm done by discrimination, Jane Elliott divided her class into two groups. Those with brown eyes were initially told they were better than other students because they were “cleaner” and “smarter.”

It took only a few hours for students to become abusive toward their classmates who were identified as inferior. The next day, however, Elliott turned the tables and told her students that those with brown eyes were dumb and lazy. The blue-eyed children were less nasty than the brown-eyed, probably because they remembered the pain they felt when they had been ostracized. This led in turn to a discussion about discrimination, a lesson that years later remains with them. The Smithsonian article’s writer calls the experiment “one of the most astonishing exercises ever conducted in an American classroom.”

High schools, of course, have always recognized with pride the accomplishments of students, both academically and athletically. Honor rolls and letterman jackets are part of this defensible tradition. However, there is a distinct psychological difference between programs and activities that students choose to participate in and those that are mandatory.

If there is a lesson to be learned, it is that the Kennedy High School practice is the reductio ad absurdum of the accountability movement. High-stakes tests will always lead to extremes because of the punitive consequences. We’ve seen this recently in the cheating scandals in schools in Atlanta and in other cities. It will only get worse in ways we cannot imagine.

The opinions expressed in Walt Gardner’s Reality Check 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.