Last Week Tonight with John Oliver
American students face a ridiculous amount of testing. John Oliver explains how standardized tests impact school funding, the achievement gap, and how often kids are expected to throw up.
The sentencing phase in the trials of Atlanta public school educators who were convicted in a mammoth cheating scandal cuts to the heart of the real debate this country needs to have around testing and accountability.
I sympathize with Judge Jerry Baxter, who exploded during sentencing when educators refused to admit their guilt. He’s right that thousands of students, most of them poor minorities, may well face future ruin because their inflated standardized test scores obscured academic shortcomings.
“This was not a victimless crime,” he said, referring to the children who, in effect, received social promotions because educators falsified test scores. “These stories are incredible. These kids can’t read.”
But I think the most important comments were those made in court by longtime civil rights leader Andrew Young. The former Atlanta mayor, and also former UN ambassador, who has spoken out against the criminal prosecution of the teachers, noted that what we really need to be focusing on is the failures of the American educational system and the perils of its focus on testing at the expense of individual students.
“We have messed up school so much,” he said. “Well, tests and grades do not make you educated.”
I’d take Young’s comments a step further: We need to not just focus more on education and less on the particulars of the testing, but, most important, we need to focus our energies on attacking the core of the problem – the cycle of poverty.
We can keep squabbling about which test is best – and under what circumstances to give it – but the test just measures the problem. We need to measure it, yes, but more important we need to address it.
There’s a powerful, and largely well-intentioned, anti-testing faction out there. But most of those voices belong to white suburban parents whose kids are going to do just fine on the tests. Those critics don’t like the stress their children feel, don’t like the way the kids are taken out of their routines – and in some cases there are legitimate issues when it comes to anxiety and special needs. But by and large, the kids will pass the tests.
But consider the process for those kids who don’t. Take the fifth grader who has three chances to pass the math test – and, if he or she doesn’t – a committee will decide whether to move the student along. Chances are the child will be promoted. But at what cost?
And chances are that child is one who comes from poverty. When he or she couldn’t pass the test, it wasn’t about the test. It was about everything that came before the test.
Judge Baxter and former mayor Young both have pieces of the truth: Kids who are passed through the system without adequate learning are, in effect, set up for a life of failure — or worse. But the testing system that the nation has put in place really is more of a measure of how much poverty has already poisoned a child’s chances of academic success — not a solution for correcting those ills.
The Atlanta case particularly caught my attention in light of a recent story related to whether doing away with testing would violate a student’s civil rights. Here’s the full Washington Post article.
The headline is that advocates for poor and minority children are pushing the very reasonable idea that standardized tests are a basic civil right. I think they are right to not want to leave it in states’ hands to make sure that disadvantaged children are getting the academic attention they deserve. That’s why they want to keep federal laws in place to test and make public the achievement gap.
Here’s what I think: We are putting the focus in this debate on the wrong issue. It’s easiest to make the testing the boogey man. But the test is just the measure. What we really need to debate is how to fill the deficiencies that poor children face from birth, the lack of early intervention, the lack of resources. Look at this brand-new brain research — which shows poor children have smaller brains than affluent children. This is just the latest piece of the puzzle.
It would be easy to read that research and try to tell yourself that this just goes to show that children who are born into poor families come into the world without the right gray matter to succeed academically.
Like most easy answers — that answer is wrong. Instead, the authors of the study believe that the “smaller brain” syndrome hooks right back into the same things I’m writing here about poverty’s poison: Poor families lack access to material goods that aid healthy development, such as good nutrition and higher-quality health care. Or poor families tend to live more chaotic lives, and that stress could inhibit healthy brain development.
These questions are the focus of the researchers’ ongoing work.
This much I know: The arguments that the upper middle class is making against testing get the headlines because affluent folks know how to make their voices heard.
The poor don’t advocate for themselves. Their energies are devoted to hanging on for dear life – and considering victory a day when their child gets three meals.
But these are the kids we need to be thinking about when we look for best practices. And it’s why, only when we break the cycle of poverty will we ever improve academic excellence.
We need to take some of that white-hot intensity we focus on moving the needle on test scores and aim it at the problems that our poorest citizens face from birth.