Testing

After a brief getting-my-life-together hiatus, I have returned to the blog. Nothing serious, really, just getting into the swing of things with a new part-time job and getting some effective work done on my graduate applications. I don’t meant to brag, but I’ve been reviewing a lot of high school math for the GRE, which I am taking on Tuesday. I think I’m ready, but I’ve still yet to review computation and permutation problems (out of a perfectly reasonable fear of equations that include !s) and I just know one is going to show up. I think I’ll bite the bullet and get into those tonight.

Speaking of testing, many of you reading this have probably seen Buffalo Business First’s 2013 rankings of Upstate New York school districts. You haven’t? Here it is. Now, from what I can tell, Buffalo Business First is a small-time business journal, and this is a ranking they have pulled together from state testing data (if anyone knows more about this ranking, please let me know), which is just to say that we don’t know precisely how they settled on this ranking. However, its results are fairly consistent with what you might expect.

I’m very proud to say that my dad and stepmother work for the highest-performing district in Upstate New York, and that my sisters are getting a first-rate education. I’m sad to say that Rochester is the lowest-performing district, out of four hundred and twenty-nine schools. To put it differently, I drive twenty minutes every day from the jurisdiction of the best school in the state to that of the worst school in the state. It is not a coincidence that the list ends with Albany, Buffalo, Syracuse, and Rochester, although it does feel uncanny. What do we make of this gross disparity? What does this tell us about our cities? The issue becomes (if possible) even more bleak when you consider that the most populous cities in Upstate New York are, in order, Buffalo, Rochester, Syracuse, and Albany. Most of UNY’s children are in the districts that are performing the worst on state tests.

I would like to conjecture that state testing is choking our inner-city schools. Allow me to make an imperfect analogy: imagine that two kids are asked to build a lego tower. One kid, we’ll call her A, has twice as many blocks as the other kid, B. (The manner of acquiring legos is complicated, you can’t just buy more. Did I already mention how imperfect this is?) The challenge is to build a tower that is one foot tall. A easily builds the tower, with a bunch of legos left over. B, having half the number of legos, is a few blocks shy of the goal. The logic of state testing dictates that when schools fall short of the goal, the goal needs to be made more difficult in order expose and solve the problem — as if educational attainment comes about by sheer force of will. When the goal is made more difficult, our struggling schools will continue to fall behind (and they will lose hours upon hours of curriculum and enrichment time trying to teach their students how to take a test that neither party is equipped to take). Is it reasonable to raise the bar on testing, across the board, when half of our state is not playing with a full deck? Resources matter. Without them, school districts fail, which is exactly what we’re seeing in our biggest cities. The state is asking Rochester to build a tower of educational success, but we’ve already used up so much of our legos on things like free hot lunches for 100% of our students. The logic of state testing frustrates me, and I get annoyed when people suggest that somehow individual teachers should be able to make up the difference. Again, as if they just aren’t trying hard enough. Expect guest posts by my AmeriCorps peers in the schools in the near future, to give a first-hand account of the rewards and challenges of working at RCSD schools.

At the REF partnership dinner last week, a wonderful and celebratory event, East High teacher Laura Delehanty gave an incredibly inspiring speech. She and her husband send their children to RCSD. She said, “If the Rochester city schools aren’t good enough for my children, they aren’t good enough for anyone’s children.” I admire her strength of character and her many accomplishments at East, but I imagine it’s not easy to be both so close and so far from educational excellence like that maintained by the Pittsford community. It is my opinion that New York State testing is ultimately prohibitive to all school districts (perhaps I’ll get my family members in education to comment on this), but our city school districts are clearly hit the hardest, making lists like these even more frustrating. Quite literally, the system is keeping our kids down.

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2 responses to “Testing”

  1. B W Turner says :

    I worry that the system is broader than just testing, and much harder to solve. And I would suggest that the biggest culprit is not the tests, but the twenty minute drive you made reference to, between Pittsford and Rochester.

    http://www.nytimes.com/2013/07/22/business/in-climbing-income-ladder-location-matters.html?ref=unitedstateseconomy

    Our biggest cities have very clear segregation: poor and rich. People with resources will be able to invest in their schools, spend extra money to send their children to better schools. These resources go out of the city schools, and those schools get poorer and poorer, have more difficulty attracting talented students, have more difficulty attracting investment. The poor neighbourhood schools, then, are sure to stay poor, because anyone with money can go elsewhere.

    I used to think that the main problem was simply the increasingly businesslike approach to education, particularly as seen in private schools. In my mind private schools are the enemy of democracy, the enemy of economic justice, because they almost ensure this kind of gradual economic disparity. So what if we just closed down all private schools? The problem would remain, because at its core it is about economic distribution, about poor people without the resources to send their children to the better schools in other neighbourhoods, and about the scarcity, among the rich, of people like Ms. Delehanty. As long as those with wealth continue to think first of their own families (and I do not expect them to stop unless forced), these problems will continue, and probably get worse.

    • wahlchelsea says :

      Thanks for your comment. I wholeheartedly agree that location (and by proxy, community capital) is a huge part of this equation, and I hope I didn’t give the impression that testing is the root cause. As the article you posted suggests, the cause is something far more complicated than my blog can adequately address. I only hoped to show that existing testing protocols are a flawed means of evaluating schools, and that they often highlight and exacerbate socioeconomic gaps.

      I’m glad you bring up the capitalist approach to education, because I’ll be treating that in my next post on charter schools. You make a good point about mobility, and the economic freedom that allows affluent families to essentially “buy” a better education for their students, even in the public system.

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