Closing the Teach For America Blogging Gap
Jun 22 2012

High Stakes Testing

As of this year, high school seniors in New Mexico have to pass a standardized test to get a diploma.

At first glance, this seems like a good thing. A kid shouldn’t graduate high school without a certain level of proficiency in reading and math, at least, and requiring them to pass the test requires them to have that level. But when you start to think about the implications of this law in our area, it gets really devastating really fast.

For the moment, I am going to leave out the very real concern that this test is not a great test. I personally feel that a lot of students’ difficulties with this test come from the wording rather than the content, because all our kids are ELL and the wording is complex so they start with a giant disadvantage. No test is perfect. But let’s leave that out and assume it’s fine.

A friend of mine who teaches high school was pretty hopeful for her seniors.  When they took the district-made practice test that was supposed to align to the high stakes test, they ended up with a 70% passing rate. Still not perfect, but pretty good. Test results come back after the big test, and only 30% passed. The other 70% will not graduate, will not receive their diplomas. They have two chances to retake the test, once right at the end of the summer when the lack of stimulation available in rural NM will take its toll and their academic abilities will be at their lowest. And once right after winter break, which has similar problems.

This breaks my heart, and it pisses me off. It breaks my heart because even though a kid should be able to read by the time they leave school, I know that in our schools even an average kid who doesn’t start with massive language impairments, who tries their best, who works hard, can still end up far below grade level through no fault of their own. Maybe they had a long-term sub instead of a teacher for 3 years out of 12, maybe they had a flat-out bad teacher, maybe they had great teachers who were overwhelmed by the amount of need in their classroom and just couldn’t give every kid what they needed (I’m usually in that last category, except that I’m not great to start with…yet). Maybe they moved 5 times in one year and changed schools along with it, their academic abilities getting misplaced and lost just like their belongings as they bounced from place to place. These are real-life events that a kid cannot control, and I’ve left out any events that are potentially controllable but still should not write a kid off as a dropout: low motivation, getting in trouble, getting pregnant, having to support their family.

I am NOT offering these as excuses. I firmly believe that a kid who has a crappy home life should be held to the same high standards as a kid who does not. I am sorry that things are harder for you, but as your teacher if I let that be an excuse I hurt you, I don’t help you. At the same time, since things ARE harder for kids in these situations, we as a school, as a district, as a society need to be prepared to offer more help. And here’s where I get pissed off.

The state mandate, as far as I know, does not have any funding for extra test prep or remediation. There is no option for a kid who fails but to retake it, which in many cases will not help anything, or drop out without a diploma. In our current economy, people have a hard time finding a job with a college degree, leaving high school dropouts pretty much screwed.

And yet, this is utterly and completely predictable. We have 8 years of testing data on every high school senior. They had terrible passing rates in 3rd grade. We watched them fail this test every year. In our district, the “best” elementary school with the most money and parent involvement, the school the doctors’ kids go to, has NMSBA passing percentages in the 60s. The “worst” schools (including mine) have passing rates in the teens. Did we really expect these kids to pass as seniors?

The school system we have is currently not educating kids up to the level demanded by the NMSBA. This is a provable fact. So how can we take kids in a broken system, who were already in bad shape by virtue of the fact that they can’t read or do math at a high school level, and take away the piece of paper that was their only shot at a job and livelihood? If we are going to require the kids to pass the test, we need to require the schools to teach them how. And yes, I know that is a really, really, really hard job. I’m trying to do it, so I know. But that is what has to happen.

Right now, we aren’t doing our job. We aren’t teaching them well enough. Yet the blame and the consequences for that don’t fall to us. Instead, they rest squarely on the shoulders of an 18-year-old kid who did everything they thought they were supposed to, and now they’re screwed for the rest of their life.

One Response

  1. Students in Alaska have to pass three exams – reading, writing and math – to graduate. I had a student who really should have passed – the kid had better academic skills than many students who easily pass the exams, and was a bright hard worker who got a lot out of school – but for whatever reason (I think a lot of it was test anxiety) just couldn’t make a passing score no matter how many re-takes. I am still so angry about this kid not getting a diploma that I could just storm the capitol. I wrote a letter of recommendation to this effect for the kid’s use when jobseeking and applying to schools, but I don’t know how much it will help.

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In which I muse about New Mexico, teaching, and life in general.

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