Assessment Opinion

Color Coded High School ID Cards Sort Students by Test Performance

By Anthony Cody — October 06, 2011 3 min read
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A high school in La Palma, California, is coming under fire for a system that publicly identifies and treats students differently according to their scores on the state standardized tests. Students who perform at the highest levels in all subjects receive a black or platinum ID card, while those who score a mix of proficient and advanced receive a gold card. Students who score “basic” or below receive a white ID card. Students with black or gold cards get certain privileges, such as free entrance to sporting events and discounts at local business events. Those with white ID cards get no such privileges, and have a designated line in the cafeteria, while the elite black and gold cardholders have a different line. The majority of students at the school have white cards, so guess which line is longer?

A school administrator reportedly advised female students at an assembly to go to dances with boys with black cards rather than white cards.

Parents have complained that this is akin to bullying, and that low performing and learning disabled students feel stigmatized by the program.

Reporter Scott Martindale at the Orange County Register broke this story Tuesday, and followed up yesterday by speaking with a motivational expert who raised concerns about the program. But the principal, Ben Carpenter, defended the program vigorously, asserting that it has helped the school raise its API score from 880 to 895.

Principal Carpenter pointed out that prior to the program, many students did not care about their test scores. He said,

There was nothing in it for them, other than an intrinsic motivation they may or may not have. The intent of the gold card program was to provide an incentive for all students, to say, "Hey, there is something in this for me. I can get something out of performing on this exam."

This program addresses a genuine problem. Many of our students do not see a connection between their performance on standardized tests and their own lives. They are not motivated to even try. I have seen students put their heads on the desk during testing, or fill in bubbles in random patterns. As we attach ever higher stakes to these tests this behavior can have very harsh consequences for the schools and individual teachers as well.

The trouble with this approach is that it intensifies the damage our obsession with testing is doing. It essentially “brands” students according to their academic performance on this one set of tests, and then rewards or humiliates them accordingly. Test performance has become literally the basis on which these students are identified. This means the majority of students at this school belong to a subclass, and they are being trained to think of themselves as unworthy of the good things in life due to their inferior performance. Of course, school leaders are hoping this will encourage everyone to try harder, but for many students, this is not a viable strategy. The English language learners, the learning disabled, these students struggle to succeed. Even First Lady Michelle Obama has described herself as being “never a great standardized test taker.” Defining the worth of students based on standardized test scores is not likely to result in many magical turnarounds.

The quality of a student’s work should not be reduced to a few test scores. Learning should be so much richer and more complex than these scores can ever indicate. And all of our students should be treated with equal respect, and not discriminated against based on their test scores. Test scores are not useless, but making them central to the mission of a school, and even worse, central to the identity of individual students, is a big mistake. Some parents are responding to the testing craze by going so far as to opt out of standardized tests altogether. Programs such as this one make that an understandable choice.

UPDATE: The Orange County Register this morning reported that the Anaheim Union High School District has discontinued the most controversial aspects of this program. The District released a statement which reads, in part:

Students will no longer carry color-coded binders. Cypress High School and Kennedy High School will provide uniform binders and uniform school ID cards for all students, at no cost to them. ... The privileges that are of a public nature, such as faster lunch lines, will no longer be in place.

They plan to create a new, apparently less public, incentive system.

Update 2: From Donovan Wheeler comes this cartoon, drawn a week ago, reproduced here by permission.

What do you think? Is this program a wise way to motivate students to perform well on tests?

The opinions expressed in Living in Dialogue 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.