Opinion
Student Achievement Opinion

Nontraditional Students, With Traditional Needs

By Paul A. Garcia — October 17, 2001 5 min read
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Four years ago, I was a vice principal at one of the largest urban high schools in central California. On a daily basis, I meted out student discipline, met with gang members, worked to establish a safe school environment, and practiced a particular brand of parent involvement. Test scores were one of the last things on my mind.

The important antecedents and correlates to student achievement lie in meeting the social, emotional, and cultural needs of students.

Now I work in the district’s office of research, evaluation, and assessment. I collect achievement data for school accountability purposes, interpret test scores for school administrators, and evaluate services for English learners. In other words, I “disaggregate” data instead of “desegregating” students.

The juxtaposition of these two educational experiences has created a troubling paradox for me. While my work now is preoccupied with the narrow cognitive measures of academic achievement and student performance on content standards, I know from my prior experience that the important antecedents and correlates to student achievement lie in meeting the social, emotional, and cultural needs of students.

The school at which I worked four years ago was awarded a restructuring grant to reform its practices and processes. Major initiatives funded by the grant were aimed at “de-tracking” the curriculum, changing the roles and responsibilities of administrators and teachers, and instituting a program of parent empowerment. Teachers and administrators at the school were encouraged to expand and redefine their roles in order to increase achievement levels for all of our students.

I was one of two vice principals at the high school who met weekly with several neighborhood gangs to develop rapport and seek ways to connect these students to school. The meetings, held during lunch hours, as well as school activities such as field trips and community events like youth conferences, were designed to involve nontraditional students in school. Such undertakings were sometimes risky and always time-consuming. Conducting mediations and agreements between gangs was tedious, tense, and demanding. However, the efforts were rewarded with improved safety and security on campus and a culture of caring about the schooling of all our students.

And there were notable successes. A school club organized by potential gang members, for example, was formally recognized by the local city council for successfully lobbying for a streetlight crossing at a dangerous intersection. The leader of the club, an admitted gang member, searched for me once after school to help thwart the smuggling of a gun onto campus. In the end, he was able to prevent the gun-smuggling on his own.

Another part of our restructuring occurred in the school budget. We paid ex-gang members and reformed drug addicts to reach out to students who were most in need of support services, but unlikely to take advantage of the traditional counseling programs that white, middle-class students are familiar with. These individuals mentored students and served as liaisons to teachers and school officials. Students grew to trust and respect these nontraditional mentors, who cared enough to try to prevent others from making the same mistakes they had made.

The challenge is to meet students' personal needs creatively, without sacrificing precious school time or losing the focus on academic achievement.

To some extent, what occurred at my school four years ago is no different from what occurs at many schools every day. Teachers and administrators struggle daily to meet the emotional, psychological, and sociocultural needs of students. Their students may be troubled, delinquent, affiliated with gangs, or the possessors of unusual, unrecognized talents. The challenge is to address these issues creatively, and at times with great risk, without sacrificing precious school time or losing the focus on academic achievement. It is ironic that in a climate of standards and performance-based testing, these daunting challenges for schools go unnoticed, and the noble efforts toward meeting them, unmeasured. Achievement tests cannot readily measure caring and commitment. Instead, schools are held accountable for results on standardized, norm-referenced tests that not only are not tied to instruction, but also cannot measure the relentless work of teachers, the resilience of students, or the very real interpersonal relationships built between students, teachers, and administrators.

Every fall, I generate school and classroom reports that indicate comparisons of student-achievement levels between classrooms, instructional programs, and groups of language-minority students. These have had implications for student placement, the identification of curricular strengths and weaknesses, and the monitoring of achievement gaps between different student populations. Schools have typically responded to the reports by trying to increase test-preparation skills, putting more instructional emphasis on the content items of tests, and targeting students near prescribed performance bands. My fear is that too much attention on student outcomes in the narrow context of test scores has discouraged creative approaches to meeting the noncognitive needs of students. Emotional, sociopsychological, and cultural needs have strong implications for student learning.

Every spring, my fear is realized as I read school-site plans for the coming year. Almost all the school goals are oriented toward increasing test scores and the percentages of students meeting grade-level standards in reading and mathematics. Only occasionally are there efforts directed toward improved school attendance, increased parent participation, or decreased rates of student suspensions. Each goal is budgeted and reflects expenditures of scarce resources for the coming year—extra reading teacher, after-school tutorials, intersession staff, and retention staff. Yet, the achievement gap between language-minority and language-majority students is not likely to close by giving students more of the same thing in the name of academic intervention.

All the standardized tests in the world will not reform our schools without caring teachers and school administrators.

In our district, much of the achievement gap between language-minority and language-majority students can be attributed to low levels of English-language proficiency. But all the tutoring in the world will not hasten the acquisition of English in the absence of a rich environment of cultural tolerance. All the high school exit exams and standardized tests in the world will not reform our schools without caring teachers and school administrators. Increased participation in summer school and intersessions will not promote an academic school culture without high expectations for nontraditional students with traditional needs.

Here, perhaps, lies the answer to my paradox. The reform in standards-based education will not come from what we do to students based on test scores—retain, tutor, remediate—but from what we do to foster school cultures that respect and address the noncognitive factors that contribute to student learning. Transformation of the school climate, culture, and ecology will have an impact—perhaps the only deep and lasting impact—on achievement.

Paul A. Garcia is an administrative analyst of research, evaluation, and assessment for the Fresno Unified School District in Fresno, Calif. The views expressed are his own.

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