Call An End To Closing The Achievement Gap

 

We hear so often, including from the new Connecticut Commissioner of Education, that the most important goal for K-12 education is to close the achievement gap. Well, what if it isn’t? What if that goal to have students affected by poverty and racism achieve standardized test scores as high as students of privilege is not only an impossible goal, because standardized test scores are correlated with family income, but one that is damaging to all K-12 students in this country?

Equating achievement with high standardized test scores does a terrible injustice to all of our children. What if we gave up on closing the achievement gap and gave up on standardized testing? What then could our schools look like?

A picture of what those elementary, middle, and high schools could look like is provided by James Hatch, a first year student at Yale who is a 52 years old retired Navy SEAL, covered with tattoos and accompanied by a service dog. Read his story here. 

James Hatch began his college education afraid of the academic competition from his classmates but left that behind when he became engaged in shared inquiry with a broad range of learners and was encouraged by a professor to recognize his own good mind and not see himself in competition with other students. He developed an appreciation for the diversity of experiences that the other students brought to class discussions and valued their questions and their passion. Through both the subject matter of his classes and interactions with his classmates, he began to think in new ways and see the world differently. He determined his life’s goal – to lead by building bridges between those who are different. He was transformed by his education.

From my experience as a teacher and an administrator in elementary, middle, and high schools, I know that we can offer that kind of education to all of our students. In grades kindergarten through grade 12, students can be taught to learn in collaboration with others so that they see that there is more than one perspective or one interpretation. They can be taught to question rather than merely to answer so that they become deep and innovative thinkers. They can see themselves as learners and thinkers because that is what their teachers encourage them to be. They can develop skills that lead them to believe in themselves. They can fall in love with learning. They can be transformed.

But none of that will happen if the students’ learning is measured by standardized tests. And none of this will happen if closing the achievement gap is the national goal.

 

Achievement: The Reach Not The Gap

A Critter Cruise demonstrated to me why standardized testing will never be a way to close the achievement gap.

What has a Critter Cruise got to do with standardized testing, you may ask. In fact, what is a Critter Cruise?

A Critter Cruise is an hour long boat trip out into Nantucket Harbor during which young children become familiar with the sea life from the depths of the ocean. The college students, studying marine biology, who work on the boat put huge containers overboard into the deep and bring up all kinds of specimen: huge crabs, lobsters, snails, and welks. The children hold them and carry them over to touch tanks where they observe them as one of the marine biology students gives them details about the specimen. After the boat travels farther from the shore, the children are given fishing poles and taught how to use them. Each child on the boat catches at least one fish, and parents and grandparents take photos of them proudly holding their line with the caught fish on the end of it.

The young children on this Critter Cruise are sure to score higher on their future standardized tests than children who will never have that kind of opportunity. First of all, the information about sea life given to the children on the Critter Cruise could be topic of a reading section on a standardized test. Secondly, the conversation about biology gives children a vocabulary and a perspective about life on the planet that those children who do not have such conversations lack and are unlikely to be able to compensate for. Thirdly, to even get to Nantucket for a Critter Cruise means that the children have families with the time, money, and motivation to provide all kinds of opportunities to broaden their children’s world which all children do not have. Lastly, the enhanced confidence in themselves gained by the children on the Critter Cruise who held up huge crabs with their own fingers and reeled in fish all by themselves cannot be easily duplicated by children who do not have those kinds of experiences.

So to sit down all kids, both those who have many experiences such as the Critter Cruise and those who have had none of that kind of experience, in the same room and give them a timed standardized test in order to OBJECTIVELY assess them is ridiculous. Their acquired knowledge differs. Their vocabulary differs. Their sense of the world and their place in it differs. Their confidence in themselves differs. There is no objectivity in standardized testing.

And for what do we want to measure them against one another? To validate for ” the haves” that they have everything including good test scores and to keep “the have-nots” aspirations low?

The achievement gap can never, ever be closed by continuing to assess students with standardized tests. We can improve achievement only by giving all children similar resources for being nurtured and enriched and then by asking all children to grow and develop beyond where they are. It’s not an achievement gap that we should be trying to close but an achievement reach that we should be offering to all children, the rich and the poor alike, the haves and the have nots alike. Only then will we be talking about actual achievement rather than talking about the gap between the well-resourced children and the under-resourced children.

Connecticut Education Needs A New Direction From The Top

According to new research from several European economists, children of same sex parents do better in school than children of parents of different sexes. They have higher test scores and graduate at a higher rate than kids who have parents of different sexes.

If one wanted to be cynical about Connecticut’s efforts to close the large and gaping achievement gap among the students in the state, one might suggest that the state give tax breaks and other incentives to same sex couples who become parents and penalize couples of different sexes if they  have more than one child in order to increase test scores.

That wouldn’t be the solution, of course, because standardized test scores and graduation rates are foolish measures of achievement.  The scores of all standardized tests, from the SBAC in Grade 3 to the SAT in Grade 12, are indications chiefly of the income of the parents and the zip code of the home. Also, graduation rates are reported in unreliable ways – either by dismissing from the school or holding back a grade those students who will not graduate as charter schools have done or by giving students watered-down learning experiences that count as course credit as public schools have done.

The recent research study about the sex of the patents points out that a socio-economic factor applies to its findings. Using a large data base of 1,200 children raised by same sex couples and more than a million kids raised by different sex couples, researchers found that same sex couples were often wealthier than different sex couples. This did not come as a surprise to the researchers since same sex couples often use fertility treatments to have a child, and those treatments are expensive. The cause and effect of high test scores and high graduation rates, therefore, is more complex than the sex of the parents.  One of the lead economists, Deni Mazrekaj, said, when presenting the research to the American Economic Association conference in January, ” Research shows that socio-economic status positively influences the school outcomes of children.” As encouraging and affirming as the recent research is about families with parents of the same sex, the report leaves us in Connecticut with the same basic questions to answer:

  • Do we want standardized tests and graduation rates to be our measure of student learning?
  • Can we ever close a gap in test scores when the scores are based on income inequality?

Governor Lamont and the State Board of Education are in the process of selecting a new Connecticut Commissioner of Education. It’s time for Connecticut to take the lead in the nation in defining what achievement is and how to assess it. To do that, we must have a Commissioner of Education who pushes hard that Connecticut:

  1. Stops using test scores and graduation rates as the measures of school success.
  2. Gives students of poverty the same experiences that more affluent children have: read to them, encourage their questions, give them ample opportunities to converse and to write,  let them express themselves with art and music, give them knowledgeable adults as role models, invite then to explore the wonders of science, literature, history, and diverse cultures, teach them to be diligent in their work habits, and take them on adventures through which they  get to know the world and claim it as their own. Most of all, invite them to be constructors of their own knowledge – to be learners.
  3. Assesses students authentically, asking them to demonstrate skills they will need to be successful, skills never, ever able to measured on standardized tests.  We could assess students on real world skills that Tony Wagner (Harvard Graduate School of Education) suggests: 1) critical thinking and problem solving, 2) initiative and entrepreneurialism, 3) collaboration, 4) agility and adaptability,  5) effective oral and written communication, 6) accessing and analyzing information, and 7) curiosity and imagination.
  4. Stops asking the question: How can we close Connecticut’s achievement gap? Let’s ask, instead: How can we best develop all children as learners and thinkers – the children who have two moms, the children who have two dads, the children with a dad and a mom, the children of poverty, and the children of affluence.

If we do these four actions, there will be a future research team that analyses what has caused the graduates of Connecticut’s schools to be so successful beyond high school, what has caused the graduates of Connecticut’s schools to be making such a difference in the world. Connecticut will have led the country in demonstrating what real achievement is.