While creating a system that seeks to make schools accountable, we may be developing tests that are not accountable to students and their needs. This is part of the message that emerged from a meeting of principals convened last summer by the Annenberg Institute for School Reform.
We may be developing tests that are not accountable to students and their needs.
I was part of this group of principals from throughout the country, all serious educators working hard to improve their schools and create real learning communities for students and teachers. Like me, these other school leaders are trying to understand their roles in the various state systems of standards, testing, and accountability. These are educators who have a passion for their work. They care about their students and respect teachers. They know that schools can be better, and that parents and other citizens deserve information on how schools are doing.
In short, they want their schools to be accountable. But at the same time, many fear that standardized testing is gaining a life of its own, and that they will have little chance to prevent this movement from making mistakes that can hurt both students and the process of learning.
Virtually every principal at this gathering agreed that standards are both necessary and good. They welcome the fact that standards have helped teachers and the public focus on student learning, and have created some common ground to discuss the skills and knowledge that students should acquire in school. Several talked about the fact that there is a new sense of apprehension among teachers and principals about the performance of their students, and that this has not been a bad thing. One colleague stressed that schools and educators should learn to use the tests as a means to improve instruction, and that test data could lead teachers to do just that.
More than anything else, the principals believe that it is a mistake to make serious decisions about a student based on the results of standardized tests.
Without exception, the principals felt that poor students, whether minority or white, should be held to high standards. They said that making excuses for why these students might not meet the standards was unjust. In fact, there was a general belief that a focus on standards and accountability could be most helpful to poor students who have not had the educational opportunities of students from more advantaged backgrounds. Some expressed optimism that testing might result in more resources for poor students and urban schools.
With all of this said, most of the principals also felt that we are in the process of doing some really stupid things with the results of the tests. They expressed fear that school systems are beginning to take actions that may raise test scores, yet not be in the best interests of students. All of us, for example, have been working very hard over the last 10 years to meet the needs of “all kids.” But we know that doing this may jeopardize the bottom line of test results in a school; the low scores of disenchanted and marginal students bring down the overall results. When more of these students stay in school, a school’s scores suffer, at least at first. And schools and school systems will be judged by those scores. They are what will be reported.
More than anything else, the principals believe that it is a mistake to make serious decisions about a student based on the results of standardized tests. Clearly, the most significant of these possible wrong decisions is whether or not a student should graduate. In fact, such a decision works against the kind of equity we are trying to achieve with standards. It has the effect of penalizing students who have not had the educational opportunities of students in better schools with more money. Likewise, students in alternative schools, the principals agreed, may achieve much in the areas of behavior, attitude, and social skills that can never be measured by standardized tests.
Understandably, several principals expressed very real concerns about students who simply do not test well. And we talked about the fact that standardized tests, despite all of our best efforts, still can be biased in a way that favors the values and beliefs of the dominant culture. Please understand that this is not a suggestion that these beliefs and values are not good. Far from it. We concurred, for example, with African-American educator Lisa Delpit’s suggestion that educators be very clear about helping disadvantaged and minority students understand the rules and codes of the white middle class. Our concern is not about these values. It is about the fact that a test with a cultural bias may not be an adequate measure of the skills and knowledge of a student who lacks a deep understanding of this culture.
The bottom line to all of our discussions was that teachers and principals need to be heard, and need to be involved in making decisions about students and schools based on test data. Our most interesting discussions centered on case studies of students who had not achieved all of the standards for the 8th grade: Should they be promoted to the 9th grade? These cases helped bring our very general discussions into sharp focus.
Standards can help these kids get a better education—if they are implemented and interpreted with balance and good judgment.
Instead of concentrating only on the standards, we started asking questions about how they apply to specific kids. While discussing one student who was still significantly below the level of proficiency, for example, the principals wanted to know if the student had been making progress and where he had scored several years earlier. With another student, one who had missed a lot of school, the principals asked for more information about the family situation and whether or not proper supports were in place for that student to achieve. For another, Hispanic-surnamed student, the principals asked about the amount of time the student had been speaking English.
These questions were not put forward to duck accountability. They were asked with the best interests of students in mind. And they demonstrated clearly how test scores fail to account for important factors that must be considered when evaluating students and schools.
One key dimension of the testing-and- accountability puzzle, we concluded, is a simple matter of how we view information on performance. In the current climate, we are being forced basically to focus on what students do not know and aren’t able to do, rather than on what they know and can do. We should understand that most state standards are set at very high levels, and that few people are equally capable in all areas. We should understand that a student with good work skills and a responsible attitude may be a very valuable employee, even if he cannot, as one standards document puts it, “recognize similarity and rotational and bilateral symmetry in two- and three-dimensional figures.”
As the principal of an urban alternative school, I care about helping my students acquire all of the knowledge and skills they’ll need to pursue further education and get decent jobs. At the same time, though, I think my teachers and I can be most successful if we try to understand the strengths and talents our students have, so that we can build on them. While many of our kids haven’t been successful in regular schools or on standardized tests, they are still an extraordinary group of young people who can contribute to the well-being of our society.
Standards can help these kids get a better education—if they are implemented and interpreted with balance and good judgment. In the end, this is what the group of Annenberg principals seemed to be seeking. An alternative school principal dealing with the impact of the New York state regents’ exam said it best: “At my school, we will continue to dance on both feet. We will still prepare kids for the test, while trying to show people in the state that the test may not be in the kids’ best interest.”
Robert DeBlois is the principal and director of the Urban Collaborative, an independent alternative public school in Providence, R.I.
A version of this article appeared in the November 21, 2001 edition of Education Week as An Accountable Balance