Tracking, Testing and the Myth of Meritocracy

sad student
Why do we track students?

Why do we separate them into remedial, academic and gifted classes?

Is it to make the teacher’s job easier? To reduce the learning gap between the lowest and highest functioning students? Or is it for some other reason?

These questions were on my mind this morning. I teach academic language arts classes at my school. I teach the students who don’t have the grades, test scores, behavior or motivation to be enrolled in the gifted classes.

When the Pennsylvania legislature slashed education funding at the insistence of Gov. Corbett, some of the first things we lost were remedial classes. So those students come to me now, too.

Perhaps that’s why it was a shock in the early morning hours when my principal dropped a bomb on me.

This morning she pressed a spreadsheet under my nose and told me she would not allow one of my best students from last year to move up to the gifted class this year.

I was gobsmacked.

This is a child who put forth the maximum effort almost every day. I couldn’t hand out a complicated week-long assignment without him completing it with a high degree of accuracy within an hour or two.

This is a boy whose hand was always raised, the correct answer almost bursting from his lips.

His grade was exceptional. I can count on one hand the number of students I’ve had in my entire teaching career who have ever earned a 100% in my class during a single semester. But he’s one of them. And even in the instances where he fell short, it was only by a few points.

If we were ever to allow a student to move on up, this is the one.

I told the principal all of this and she just pressed her finger deeper into the spreadsheet. Oh, he had the grades alright. He just didn’t have the standardized test scores.

Let’s pause here for a moment to take this in. The import of this decision goes way beyond one student in one school. It touches us all.

My principal had decided to place this child into a class based solely on his standardized test score. The administrator had weighed three days of testing versus 180 days of classroom excellence and come down on the side of the tests.

I couldn’t believe it. Countless studies have shown GPA is a better indicator of academic success than standardized test scores. That’s why more than 800 colleges no longer even require applicants to take the SAT. But before I could protest, my principal was off, holy spread sheet in hand.

I could barely breath. I had just seen my former student and his mother the night before at open house. Mom gushed about how proud she was of him. She had always been afraid to place him in the gifted classes because she wasn’t sure he could handle it emotionally. She didn’t want him to get bogged down with extra work and fall behind. But after his stellar performance in my class last year, she was finally willing to give him a chance.

The pride he felt was all over his face. He had worked hard and he knew now that he could do it. He wasn’t afraid anymore. He was ready for the next challenge.

What would this new decision do to him? My heart broke at the prospect of finding out.

What had happened to make his standardized test scores so low? He hadn’t bombed them, but he hadn’t quite passed them either.

This is the first time I’ve ever had such a discrepancy between classroom grades and test scores. Usually students who get a high grade in my class at least pass their standardized tests. I’ve had one of the best records in this regard in the district for years.

But last year’s exam was an anomaly. Pennsylvania is in the process of revising the PSSA tests – given to elementary and middle school students – to more closely resemble the Keystone exam – given to high school students.

Almost a quarter of last year’s PSSA questions were field tested (See: PSSA Reading Inquiry). They didn’t count toward the student’s score. They were questions test-makers were considering counting next year depending on how students did on them this year.

A test is only as good as its questions. A confusing question can really put a student off – especially if he has test anxiety.

Even if the problem is the question and not the student’s ability, having to face queries of variable quality while taking a high-stakes test can easily reduce a student’s faith in himself. Sure the field tested questions don’t count, but they can hurt a student’s chances of getting correct the ones that do.

Moreover, there were plenty of changes to the scored questions. Teachers lobbied the state Department of Education to provide us with examples of how the test was changing but were given very minimal information. We ended up giving our classes the same preparation we always do. We taught them how to identify synonyms and antonyms, theme, the elements of plot, etc. But students were inevitably less prepared about what kinds of questions to expect. Therefore, anxiety levels were heightened.

In addition, this is the first year my district has not trusted classroom teachers to proctor standardized tests to their own students. The state has been strongly cautioning schools from allowing teachers to give the tests to their own students since various cheating scandals have rocked the news.

In an effort to forestall teachers giving any help to students struggling on the tests, they make teachers give the tests to children with whom they do not already have a strong relationship. I guess the thinking is that we’d be more prone to help kids if we know and care about them.

Rapport matters. Students will work harder for a teacher they respect and admire – for someone they know cares about them as a person and not just as a name on a roster. Moreover, kids shut down for teachers with whom they don’t get along. Guess which kind of teacher proctored my star pupil’s test last year.

Finally, we come to grading. How are these standardized tests graded in the first place? Administrators like mine take these scores as an objective measure of student performance, but are they?

Grading tests in Pennsylvania is done by Data Recognition Corporation (DRC) – the same company that created and distributed the exams in the first place. Unlike most classroom grades, test scores are NOT determined on the percentage correct. For instance, getting 80% of the questions right does not mean you have a B or even necessarily a passing score. What constitutes passing isn’t even determined until after all the exams are scored.

DRC trusts the job of grading their tests to temporary workers who may or may not have a teaching certificate. The only prerequisite is holding some sort of college degree and agreeing to work for $13 to $14.25 an hour. Once all the tests have been graded, temps get together and decide which range of correct answers will constitute Advanced, Proficient, Basic and Below Basic that year.

So a student could get the exact same percentage of questions correct one year and get a Proficient and the next year get a Basic. That’s not an objective measure. These temps can decide to put the bar low or high based on whatever reason they want. How does that make this score an impartial measure of students academic abilities?

Yet this is the essential metric by which students like mine are to be judged.

Thus, the myth of meritocracy vanishes from our classrooms.

Let’s face it. The most accurate predictor of success on standardized tests is parental income. In general, rich kids do well and poor kids don’t.

Children who have the proper nutrition, get enough sleep, aren’t stressed out by the challenges of living in poverty – those children simply do better when a snapshot is taken of their academic performance.

Don’t believe me? Take the smartest person you want and starve them of healthy food, make sure they don’t get enough sleep, hold them back from instruction and make them worry about their personal safety before giving them a test. Then a month later give them adequate resources and have them take the same test. Want to bet which score will be higher?

Therefore, tracking students isn’t based on true academic ability, either. It only serves to stratify kids by socioeconomic status. The rich kids get the advanced classes and the poor ones get the academic.

It’s not a conscious decision, but in accepting standardized test scores as an objective measure when they clearly aren’t, we are in effect refusing to look behind the curtain. The limited mobility we do allow between advanced and academic classes is just to preserve the myth of meritocracy and “prove” it can be done.

So here we were. As the day wore on, I saw my student in the hall with the most crushed and defeated look on his face. He had been looking forward to moving up. He had worked so hard and achieved so much only to be told he wasn’t good enough.

I wanted to cry. I walked past the principal’s office determined to give her a piece of my mind but realized if I told her even a fraction of what I was really thinking, I’d have to be escorted from the building.

So I did the next best thing. I asked the student to see me after class, and then with him present I called his mother. I explained the situation and asked her what she thought.

She said she agreed with me and had been stewing about the situation all day. I told her I would help her fight the decision. I told her we would go all the way to the superintendent if needed.

She was very grateful and asked what she should do about standardized testing in the future. She said her son has always had intense test anxiety and would never do well on high-stakes tests.

I told her what I would tell any parent, what I tell every parent who just asks me: opt out. Students don’t have to take these high-stakes standardized tests.

Don’t let small-minded administrators use these deeply flawed assessments to judge your child and make life-changing decisions based on flawed data.

Don’t let the corporate education reform movement continue to mask class warfare as meritocracy.

Parents and teachers unite!

NOTE: In an effort to preserve my student’s anonymity, unimportant details may have been changed.

UPDATE: Mom called the school the next day, and the student was moved to the advanced class.

38 thoughts on “Tracking, Testing and the Myth of Meritocracy

  1. Thank you for sharing this. My school makes placement decisions using the same flawed system. I worked almost exclusively with remedial readers (spec Ed students, felons, kids with behavior issues) for 2 years and saw them make incredible gains in the classroom *after we established a relationship*, only to see them tank The Test because they didn’t like the teacher who proctored it. Of course, the following year they were labeled as remedial again, reinforcing the idea that they “were stupid” and “couldn’t do” the work. To see principals who were former educators buy into the testing mania is so frightening, but to watch what it is doing to our children is blood chilling.

    Liked by 1 person

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