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The Unintended Consequences of High Stakes Testing

One of the saddest stories to come out of the schools in a long while is the recent grade fixing scandal at John Dewey High School in NY.

Dewey’s graduation rate had improved significantly under the four-year tenure of Principal Kathleen Elvin. In 2009, the graduation rate was 56 percent, climbing steadily to 74 percent last year.

This is important.  There are cash bonuses for rising graduation rates.  Just as relevant, it has been at risk of being closed if grades did not improve.

It turns out this news may have been too good to be true.  The school is being investigated for running an overly aggressive “credit recovery” scheme that helped students improve to a passing grade with extra assignments that are suspected of being too easy.  For instance, one student reports getting science credits for watching Jurassic Park!

This is a sad chapter in American education on so many levels.

The stress all schools face

There is high stakes testing pressure everywhere, particularly for schools on the margin, at risk of closure, and in schools where teachers are paid based on test results.  These pressures have unintended consequences. Students end up having a poor learning experience and teachers adjust their teaching — everyone gets smarter about taking the test:

  • Teachers narrow their teaching to focus only on tested material
  • Students rote learn answers known to improve results
  • Students are taught how to game the test — test-taking technique
  • Marking standards can weaken as the pressure increases

None of these adjustments improve the quality of children’s education or help them become career ready, but it gets the job done for teachers, schools, school boards, politicians and policy makers. Ever higher pass rates vindicate their decisions and backs up the belief that testing works.

The more that is at stake, the more pressure on all staff and more temptation to push limits.

No doubt, John Dewey High School went too far. But if you looked hard at schools across America — and certainly, those in favor of this accountability system don’t want to — you will find varying forms of what allegedly occurred at John Dewey.

What lessons should parents draw from Dewey?

While politicians, regulators and accountability proponents will see this an isolated example with no particular significance, we can’t help but think there are lessons to be learned.

While inexcusable, Dewey’s actions are understandable. The school, like so many others, was at risk of closing if the pass rate did not improve. The story should give everyone pause.

— At what point did tests morph from a measurement into the overarching educational goal for this school?

— What kind of education are students getting at schools needing to focus so heavily on test results?

— How many other schools with struggling pass rates are headed down the same path?

We believe the best outcome a school can deliver for children is a love of learning as a platform for lifelong learning, arguably the most critical of all life and career skills.  This means acquiring the capacity for deep understanding (being able to connect to prior knowledge and put in context), critical thinking, and then self-directed learning.  Most of all, students should leave school as curious and creative learners excited about a lifetime of learning ahead.

Lifelong learning is nowhere on the radar at schools like Dewey.  Everyone there, students and teachers, are focused on passing the tests.  Students most likely connect learning with stress and drudgery, and teachers, whose role it is to inspire, have no bandwidth to open their students eyes to the wonders of curiosity and creativity.

It’s a great shame for the students at that school and all the other schools in America that feel the threat of closure.

Is your child’s schooling at risk?

This Dewey news is a massive failure for the accountability movement and a cautionary tale and indicator of what lies ahead should America continue down this high-stakes testing path.

The more under threat a school is regarding pass rates — often unrelated to quality of the school, but more related to the mix of students at the school — the less time there is for teachers to work on anything not related to a test.

If you suspect your child is at a school like this, overly focused on high stakes testing, you should fear for his educational well-being.  More particularly, if your child is struggling with learning, you may want to seek outside help. Many parents whose children need reading help or who have learning delays, including dyslexia and auditory processing disorder, come to Gemm Learning for assistance because they know that their schools are under the gun, and just do not have the time or resources to meet these kinds of individual student needs.