Jumbled post tonight…lots of thoughts on this topic.
So…I stopped by my son’s school today during lunch. During my time talking with my little guy, I asked him how PARCC testing was going. He said “fine”. I asked him how he likes the test (fully expecting eye rolling, groaning, dramatics)… he said “it’s cool, I like it. It’s on the computer”. I was surprised. But I was also happy to hear that PARCC testing is not the demoralizing, horrible experience that I have read about in a variety of articles and blog posts. Exhale.
I have to admit, given the many aspects of my own identity (racial minority, mother, former teacher, former administrator, etc.), standardized tests have a funny place in my own heart… On one hand, standardized tests give us important data about how children are doing, particularly when disaggregated by race/income. They push us to see “ability” in kids who we never considered, beyond using our biased and privileged beliefs and mindsets (and subsequent perceptions). They also push us to see trends among groups. To see who is faring well and not, in our current way of operating. On the other hand, they don’t and can never give us the full story about any child (hopes, dreams, aspirations, challenges, value), or even the full story about any school or district (hopes, dreams, aspirations, challenges, value). They should direct our attention to more fully and deeply understand the story, which should inform our response (if the story should be challenged or affirmed).
When I was in 5th grade, I was given a standardized gifted test to see if I qualified for gifted services. The results stated that I was not gifted. As a result, I did not receive access to gifted enrichment services. I also remember taking the Illinois Prairie State exam in elementary (I think that is what it was called) and testing off the charts in language/reading/vocabulary, but dismally under-performing in math. Those test results made me feel really smart, albeit not in math… Those test results spoke value to me, particularly when I saw my grade level equivalents (high school for some). They also spoke of my value to my parents and teachers. When I immigrated from Canada in 4th grade, I was placed in the lowest reading group; this was in spite of my native English language ability (English in an official language in Canada,..lol). It was also in spite of my ability/strength as an avid/fluent reader. I read voraciously at home; I literally kept a flashlight on the side of my bed, so that I could get lost in books at night after everyone had fallen asleep. My teacher didn’t know any of this about me (“home life” can be conceptualized in one-dimensional ways). She knew what I looked like, where I came from, and assigned me the lowest reading group. It is 100% true that kids know who is in the “high” “middle” and “low” groups in any given classroom; I remember the shame and insecurity that came with being in the lowest group. However, after my high language/reading/vocabulary scores, I was moved into the high reading group, and stayed there. I was grateful for that. Tests can never fully define anyone… that to me is obvious. As I shared earlier in the post, I was not “gifted” but if you were to talk to my high school honors English teachers, they shared different and essential feedback with me. If you were to talk to some of my college professors, or the literary journal that published my work, or my mother :-), those standardized test results did not speak to my value or to a full definition of who I was.
I am acutely aware that much of my success (particularly as a female racial minority) has come from my ability to navigate systems that have been defined by white dominant culture. One of those systems is standardized testing. The opt-out movement will not help my children (who are racial minorities) gain access to social capital/power, which they will need to navigate society in a way that doesn’t leave them completely powerless. I am not ascribing to assimilation here as I want them to be able to navigate society with their sense of self and community in tact. Even if I fundamentally disagree with PARCC (design, process, purpose), my children need to know how to navigate that aspect of the system, as they need to know how to navigate many other things (as I have navigated) to have access to a fuller range of life choices/opportunities. It is hard enough for racial minorities to gain access to college; there are so many hoops to jump through. If I opt my children out of standardized testing, how am I really preparing them to effectively navigate these and other hoops?
When I stepped into the principal position at Garden Hills, one of the many labels that was ascribed to the school was the honor of having some of the lowest test scores in the district at the elementary level. We also served the highest percentage of children living in poverty, the highest number of children identified as homeless, and one of the largest populations of children living in the foster system. I was excited by this context. To me, if you couldn’t be successful in this context, then you could never claim to be a master teacher or an effective leader in the public school system. I didn’t care about the stigma or professional risk involved in taking over a building that many were afraid to attach themselves to professionally. Once starting, I quickly surrounded myself with a powerful administrative and instructional leadership team, rolled up my sleeves, and got to work. My first year at Garden Hills was one of my most challenging yet triumphant professional experiences (in so many ways). I could literally see the school begin to transform. I could see the adults transforming, in such beautiful, courageous, and powerful ways. No standardized test score could capture the courage, resilience, and growth that was developing in my building. Knowing this, I tried my best to educate perspective parents and community members about standardized tests and the dangers in choosing a school for their child/creating a story for the school solely based off of test scores.
I see a movement towards anti-testing on a national, state, and local level, which concerns me, because I believe that it is a movement steeped in privilege. I see a lot of privileged blind spots in that movement. For one, it is difficult to identify achievement gaps (opportunity and access gaps) without this kind of testing accountability in place. Continuing to disaggregate the data by race and income-level is absolutely needed. I am 100% confident in saying that, given my experiences in education (now for over a decade), that I generally don’t trust the people who are leading schools, systems, and classrooms to acknowledge these gaps and to do something about them without this accountability measure, no matter how poorly designed the measure may be. We need an accountability measure. I also want to share that when groups of children do poorly, that if we interpret that as innate inferiority (biological or cultural), that this interpretation is a lazy and convenient one. Gaps should inform where we focus energy to develop true understanding of root cause before designing strategy for improvement. The ways that we respond actually skirt root causes and contribute to the continued widening of the achievement gap. A close examination of the most recent data for all Champaign Unit 4 schools (I’ll focus on elementary) along racial lines points to a persistent and dramatic achievement gap with black children (45 percentage points in reading/ 47 percentage points in math), English language learners (41 percentage points in reading/20 percentage points in math), and low-income children (45 percentage points in reading/ 41 percentage points in math) solidly at the bottom. The data has shown perpetual, continued increases/widening since the 2008-2009 school year. The conclusion that some have come to (whether they’ve voiced it or not) is that these children and their families are inferior (biologically, socially, culturally, etc.) and that the results are simply evidence of that. The conclusion that I’ve come to given my own experience working in high-poverty schools across state lines is that schools and districts haven’t really made the commitment to adjust the way they serve children to meet their needs. An inconvenient truth is that schools and districts operate in this way directly because of the operating principles, values, and norms of larger mainstream society. The truth is that surface level-interventions (my God there are so many in this community, state, and nation) and status-quo policies and practices (ie. self-contained gifted programming/suspension/expulsion) produce no results (or limited results) along equity lines. Yet we continue to pursue them for fear of disrupting the status quo that keeps inequities solidly in place. We have been doing this for so long that we now have generations who have come to expect that schooling be perpetuated in this way, because it is what we have known. We have leadership (classroom, school, district, society in general) that is not courageous/empowered enough to challenge those norms in the best interest of the groups that need it most.
My hope for my son who is taking the PARCC test this week…. I hope that he understands that he can do it. That he must do his best. That even if he does his best, that the test won’t being to speak to his value. It won’t begin to speak to his potential. It won’t begin to speak to his dreams. It will speak to a snapshot of his knowledge and his ability to navigate this hurdle (one of many hurdles that he will face as a man of color), at this moment in time. I want him to know that I expect him to do it. That he must. That he represents himself, our family, and our community in what he demonstrates (whether that is fair or not, which is another life lesson that I want him to internalize…life isn’t fair…you must pursue life in the best way you can in spite of the cards that you’ve been dealt, and the things that suck about it). I want him to know that he has ancestors who triumphed in much greater ways. Who persevered in the face of more explicit struggles. That he is not alone in our experience, and that he must continue to pursue life, with a passion and purpose that he has defined for himself (ideally in collaboration with God). I want him to know that I love him and that I will be in his corner. Always. #ungiftedbutsuccessfulmom #mykidwilltakethetests #mykidwillalsoknowthetestsplaceinhislife #notopposedtoPARCC