Rep. David Simmons, the chair of the Florida Senate Appropriations sub committee on Education wants a serious look at way to reduce over testing. What is over testing? Is it all the prep testing that goes on prior to the state tests? On the other hand, is it too many redundant state or national tests e.g. requiring students to sit the FSA and the SAT if they are going to college? Or, is it requiring students to take a state test like the FSA every year? There is another way to look at over testing. Perhaps it is a way to avoid looking for solutions.
Labeling. Perhaps the over testing issue is really about the consequences for students, teachers, and schools. Taking a test, little short ones can help students learn. Taking tests that are used to label students is a very different thing. If you are a nine year old student attending an ‘F’ school, you are a failure by association even if you meet FSA standards. If you are a teacher in the same school, you too are too often considered part of the problem, not the solution. So, you leave.
Labeling through school grades and student achievement scores is supposed to motivate students, teachers and districts to find solutions and raise achievement. It can be done, but not one teacher at a time. If schools in a district are balanced by racial and socio economic demographics, failing schools would likely disappear. Every school would have a larger number of successful students than failing students. All schools would likely earn at least a ‘C’ grade. This approach, however, is just a start toward a solution.
School Balance. Such redistribution of students may make it possible to solve the surface problem of labeling. What it does not solve is the learning problem for disadvantaged children who come to school with deficits that are difficult to overcome. It could, however, give promising disadvantaged children some access to higher quality courses. What can be done for those other struggling children? Most charter and voucher schools do not want them; they bring down their school grades and/or are too difficult to manage.
School Culture. When some schools get too high a percentage of disadvantaged students, the school culture begins to change. Districts have been responding by creating magnet programs to integrate these schools. Sometimes this works if the local children have access to the magnet program courses. What happens, however, if the local children simply do not have the academic skills to succeed in these programs? You have a two tiered system that creates hostility between haves and have nots. So, districts are in between a rock and a hard place. How do you balance under enrolled schools in low income areas if parents are concerned about their children’s safety? No matter how appealing a specific academic program may be, the entire school culture has to be one that supports learning. This means that most of its parents support learning.
Gainesville has schools that are experiencing this dilemma. One high school in a low income area has the International Baccalaureate program that draws high achieving students who help balance the state accountability numbers. With this program, the school now receives a ‘C’ grade. Does this solve the problem for the concentration of students with low achievement? The district puts in extra resources for these children, but there is continuing tension. This school is characterized as ‘a school within a school’. There are two school cultures, not one.
Yesterday there was a brawl that made a front page headline in the newspaper. It was not between the two groups in the school. It was a breakdown, probably gang related, of the school culture for the more disadvantaged students. What will the outcome be for the IB group? Will they withdraw? If so, what happens to the rest of the students and their school?
Finding Solutions. This is not a district or an individual school problem; it is a community problem. We have lots of community conversations going on about these problems, but we need community conversations about the possible solutions. Lip service just does not ‘cut it’. Testing cannot solve it. School choice cannot hide it.