Guest Mindsetter: How the NECAP Fails Everybody
Monday, September 30, 2013
I had mixed feelings about accepting the position; the NECAP assessments, which Rhode Island students take in their junior year, were the reason I left my position teaching high school English in June 2012. I taught Providence students for two decades. In general, I am in awe of them. Every day, they use their wits to move through landscapes scarred by poverty, violence, and uncertainty, toward a system of education they need to believe in. For the most part, they retain their youthful exuberance and optimism. I left when I could see that, by virtue of the new testing climate, I was being forced into the role of year-round drillmaster instead of teacher.
Working for a Turn-Around Company
But as I considered the job offer, I realized I might be able to do some good as a temporary drillmaster. The NECAP wasn’t designed to be used as a determinant of graduation but that’s how it’s being used in Rhode Island. This year’s seniors who failed the test when they took it in 11th grade were told they wouldn’t be graduating unless they could show improvement this year. As a result, there are many hard-working, ambitious 12th graders this year, living with extreme anxiety about whether they’ll improve their score and receive a high school diploma. I imagined that, regardless of my feelings toward the test, I could help those seniors if I took the job. They would be anxious to learn what they needed to know to graduate, and I’d do everything I could to help them pass the test and get their diploma.
In the end, I accepted the position.
I agreed to drop by on the Wednesday before my program was scheduled to begin, to meet the Cambium consultant who I’d be taking my orders from and to get a copy of the curriculum. That would give me a few days to become familiar with the material and plan my classes.
When I got to the meeting, it turned out that the consultant was still in Florida and the program would have to be delayed a day until she arrived. Also, they didn’t have a curriculum to give me. I met instead with the principal and assistant principal who assured me that I didn’t need to see the curriculum in advance because there was really nothing to prepare. My job was going to be extremely easy and exactly the same every day: I had a reading strategy to teach, a packet of readings to use, and a few multiple choice questions at the end of each reading to go through with the students. That was the whole plan for every day until the end of September.
It seems to me that a company that is making millions to turn a school around would want to be there from the beginning of the school year, and would have the curriculum for its test prep class ready at least five days before the program begins. But I would be wrong.
And I was also wrong, completely wrong, to assume I’d be working with 12th graders to help them retake the NECAP, improve, and graduate. The students I’d be working with, they told me, were going to be as easy as the alleged curriculum; they were 11th graders who had been cherry-picked as the most likely to get a score of proficient or almost proficient.
The practice of cherry-picking students shouldn’t have come as a surprise to me; it wasn’t the first time I’d seen it used. As counter-intuitive as it may seem to help the students who least need it while ignoring the students who could really benefit from it, both the turn-around company and the school administrators have good reason to do it. They need to get data that shows improvement in the school if they want to keep their jobs; the 12th graders who failed last year don’t figure into that sort of thinking. By concentrating on the students most likely to succeed, they ensure that the test points skew higher, and they avoid the punishments that low scores could mean for them. It’s just one of the ways data points can be manipulated to look like improvement at a school, but it certainly doesn’t mean that schools are delivering a better education to their students, which is what climbing scores are widely and mistakenly believed to show.
Cherry Picking, and Other Concerns
For the next few days I exchanged emails and phone calls with the people in Florida. While laced with sweet sentiments, their communications turned out to be a series of delaying tactics, giving them time to actually create a curriculum. It was finally delivered to my drop box on Saturday night. That gave me two days to prepare.
I would be teaching the 11th graders a strategy called Search and Destroy, a simple, four-step system for using clues such as titles, illustrations, and the questions at the end of each reading, to get oriented to a passage. It wasn’t new to me; it’s a time-honored practice for teaching test-taking, and, if it’s taught right it can be a decent exercise in using critical thinking skills. A week would be sufficient; three weeks is brutal overkill. Obviously the turn-around company and school administrators were not about to take any chances with test scores.
I looked over the short readings in the practice packet. Only one or two had even a vague connection to urban students’ lives.Not the first one; it was an excerpt from Growing Up, a memoir of the 1930’s written by Russell Baker. Fifty years ago, when I was a teenager, I actually read Baker’s New York Times columns. As an aspiring writer, I studied his style and puzzled out his understated jokes. Should urban students today be expected to have encountered subtle humor, The Saturday Evening Post, or a gas station referred to as a filling station? Even if they somehow can decode words like intervening, beckon, and maxim, what would they think of the mother who forces her timid son out into the streets of a city every day for three years to sell magazines? Surely, the turn-around company could find readings that weren’t quite so culturally biased.
For the regular teachers of these students, it would be a disruptive nightmare, but for the students, it could mean the end of any college aspirations. They would be missing almost a month of classes. Missing Phys. Ed. or Art was bad enough, but how could a student recover from the interruptions in classes like Physics or Foreign Languages? Suburban parents would never allow this to happen, but in urban schools the schedule switches are often sudden, mysterious, and unattended by such niceties as informing the parents.
It took a couple of days for kinks in the schedule to be worked out. The 11th graders drifted in, confused and concerned about missing classes. I was concerned too; during the first couple of days, when I heard from students that they were missing academic classes like Physics or Foreign Languages (never the two tested subjects, of course!), I sent them back to their teachers. Teachers had been directed not to penalize students for missing work, but even if they didn’t, the students would be at an enormous disadvantage. The students, however, kept on being sent back to me.
As promised, the 11th graders were very cooperative. I explained that this was a class to prepare them for answering multiple choice questions on the English NECAP test they would be taking the first week in October. My sole goal was to make sure that they wouldn’t suffer any anxiety about whether they could graduate next year. They were pretty much all on board with that sentiment. I had to allay worries that they were sent to me because they were “losers;” I explained that in fact they were sent to me because they were “winners.” They were confused about that, unacquainted as they are with the concept of cherry picking, but relieved.
By Friday, I was beginning to know my students: I could identify the ones who already had the skills I was teaching and for whom this was a complete waste of time; the ones who could use the skills and would even enjoy a week, but no more, of what we were doing; and the ones who even three weeks of coaching couldn’t help. Those were the students with reading disabilities. Not that they couldn’t be helped; they desperately need reading teachers, trained professionals who are able to correctly interpret diagnostic tests and successfully treat the wide variety of reading disabilities encountered in high school classes. However, several years ago in a cost-cutting measure, Providence removed all the reading teachers from the city’s high schools.
Better Ways to Spend $5 Million in Schools
Carole Marshall has devoted the past two decades to teaching urban youth as a high school English teacher in Providence, Rhode Island. Prior to that, she worked for a number of leading newspapers in the United States and Europe. She was on the New York staff of The Financial Times of London and subsequently worked as the U.S. business correspondent for The Observer of London, based in New York.
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