Dear Mr. Bill Gates,
I recently read an online dialogue between Education Week’s Anthony Cody and the Gates Foundation. In it, Irvin Scott of the Foundation states, “Simply, I believe all children can learn. I believe low-income children of color can learn when they have great teachers who believe in them, and treat them with the same passion, enthusiasm and intellectual rigor that they would treat their own children.” This got me thinking about the “No Excuses … All Students Will Learn” slogan, which has always bothered me, and I think I now know why.
I absolutely agree that all children can learn, however I wish to add nuance to these statements by pointing out that kids learn at different rates and they demonstrate their knowledge in different ways. The multiple intelligences theory was one of the first concepts taught to us in teacher training. Not only is the one-size-fits-all, Common Core-fortified testing program educationally unsound, but it does little – if anything – to accommodate and honor these varying learning styles.
Is Irwin Scott using standardized test scores alone to measure student learning? One of the most dynamic, hard-working teachers at my Title I public school in Brooklyn, NY teaches challenging and thought-provoking material to a small group of students in a 3rd grade self-contained special ed class. Her kids are learning an enormous amount both academically and socially/emotionally. She gardens with them, takes them to Chinatown, runs laps around the school with them and teaches them high-level, content-related vocabulary through New York Times articles, among many other enriching activities.
However, her three ELLs (English-language learners) will not test proficient on this year’s NYSESLAT and will remain in ESL indefinitely, at-risk of becoming long-term ELLs, a status that reflects poorly on a school. This is due to a learning disability, not an English-language deficiency. Also, few students in her class – if any- will receive a score of 3 (so-called grade level performance) on the Common Core state tests that were administered in New York in April. Looking at test scores alone, will these students be viewed as not having learned this year? Will their test scores reflect poorly on this singular teacher? She is the kind of instructor I aspire to be. What’s also remarkable about her is that she doesn’t allow the demands of the state tests, specifically the pressures to engage in mind numbing test prep, to rattle her or to affect her high quality of teaching. Test prep, a result of high-stakes testing, actually lowers the quality of instruction.
The state does make testing accommodations for students with disabilities and for English-language learners (extended time, questions read, for example), however the length and content of the tests remain the same. Furthermore, ELLs (English-language learners) are required to take the English-language arts exam after just 12 months in the system. If the “official” learning of these students is judged solely by test scores, imagine the impact this can have on the students’ feelings of self- worth. On the one hand their minds are expanding in the classroom (test prep aside), but coming from the other direction is a crushing force telling them that their learning is deficient.
In officially measuring learning, will the judgement of individual schools and teachers in the US ever be trusted and respected enough to instead consider other, more meaningful assessments? Ironically, it has been drilled into us – by the same people who force oppressive standardized testing programs upon us – to differentiate instruction in order to meet the needs of all students. So who is really being measured by these tests?
Next up: how “No excuses” doesn’t allow room for the consideration of poverty and the level of parent involvement as major factors influencing student performance. Teachers aren’t making excuses. We are being realistic.
P.S. Sorry for the messy link. I am not ready for a career in computer science.
Dialogue between Anthony Cody and the Gates Foundation: http://mobile.edweek.org/c.jsp?DISPATCHED=true&cid=25983841&item=http%3A%2F%2Fblogs.edweek.org%2Fteachers%2Fliving-in dialogue%2F2012%2F09%2Fa_teacher_in_dialogue_with_the.html