Carole Marshall is a retired teacher in Rhode Island who explains how State Commissioner Deborah Gist’s insistence on standardized testing has discouraged educators and students across the state. The most pernicious effect of this policy, Marshall shows, has hurt poor and minority youngsters the most.
In an article in the Providence Journal, Marshall writes:
The Oct. 15 Commentary piece (“R.I.’s diploma system brings out the best”) by Deborah Gist, Rhode Island’s commissioner of elementary and secondary education, is yet another demonstration of her ability to say what she wants to be true, as if the saying of it makes it true.
Among the many half-truths and untruths in her screed is the insinuation that students who score badly on the New England Common Assessment Program tests, i.e. urban students, have been subject to “years of poor, inadequate education,” while students who do well have teachers who, by contrast, “provide great instruction that engages students on many levels and teaches key academic skills.”
This malicious slur on urban teachers is the ultimate in hubris from a young woman who spent a handful of years teaching in an elementary school and since then has glided up the professional ladder on the shoulders of right-wing politicians and millionaires like Jeb Bush and Eli Broad. If there are any urban teachers who didn’t know what the commissioner thought of them before, they know now.
I left urban teaching before I had planned to for one reason only: I could not be a participant in what top-down, standardized testing does to destroy education in urban schools and, by extension, the lives of students who are already hanging on by a slender thread to the dream of a successful middle-class life.
Before the systematic destruction began, I would have held my school, Hope, up against any other school in the state in terms of who was providing great instruction. Hope’s faculty included a significant number of advanced degrees, Ivy League graduates, and national-board-certified teachers. With the support of then-Commissioner Peter McWalters, we taught literacy across the curriculum, shared rubrics for scoring work, and created a system for student portfolios. We were doing the slow, careful job of building a climate characterized by rigorous, accountable learning.
Then high-stakes testing arrived on the scene and to nobody’s surprise, urban schools’ scores were worse than the scores of suburban schools; the same pattern repeats itself year after year in every corner of this country.
Why? There are a host of extremely well-documented reasons for this. To name just a few: Urban schools have a hugely disproportionate number of students who are new to the language; a hugely disproportionate number of students with learning disabilities; and large numbers of students with serious behavioral problems, including those sent from their suburban districts to group homes in the cities.
That is in addition to the reality that students from impoverished environments are often handicapped by circumstances beyond their control, such as vocabulary deficits, health problems, unstable homes, hunger, and the list goes on. We can all wish these conditions didn’t exist, but we can’t, as Commissioner Gist likes to do, simply ignore them away. Throwing tests at urban students does nothing to solve their problems. The disparities will only grow wider as mandatory test preparation steals more and more time from real education in urban schools.
On the subject of test prep and teaching to the test, Commissioner Gist is correct about one thing: “schools with students who perform well on state assessments do not focus on test preparation.” Pretty tautologically obvious in my opinion; the schools with students who perform well have no reason to focus on test preparation.
On the other hand, in the schools that are being threatened with closure solely on the basis of test scores, you can be sure administrators are not just sitting around, waiting to lose their jobs. The specter of low scores powerfully encourages test preparation and teaching to the test.
This year, the turn-around company hired for $5 million to raise scores in Providence schools hired tutors who spent every school day during the month of September prepping 11th graders for the NECAP assessments.
The students were missing their regular classes every day, even in subjects like physics and foreign languages, so that the schools could show improvement. Suburban parents would never have allowed this; urban parents were not informed.
Students are disingenuously told that this is all happening for their own good. Any reader of this newspaper who truly believes that the testing juggernaut is about benefiting the students is sorely uninformed.
The textbook publishers who sell the test and test-prep materials will make their billions, the so-called turn-around companies will make their millions, and carpetbaggers like Ms. Gist will continue blithely along their career paths, leaving behind wrecked schools and crushed dreams in the cities.
Carole Marshall taught at Hope High School for 18 years, retiring in 2012. Before that she was a business correspondent for the Observer of London and taught journalism at Fairleigh Dickinson University and the University of Rhode Island.