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Why Do You Ask?

From asking questions that require an answer To asking questions that require a conversation.

Friday, June 25, 2010

Achievement Gap Discussion (Better Explanation)

It's difficult to give full meaning (and there complete understanding) in the 140 character limit of Twitter.  But I've been giving it a go on this concept of "achievement gap" as it has been defined (and therefore limited) in the context of educating young people.

From Wikipedia - Achievement gap refers to the observed disparity on a number of educational measures between the performance of groups of students, especially groups defined by gender, race/ethnicity, ability, and socioeconomic status.

Etymology - The word achieve comes from the Latin, caput (meaning head) and then Old French - chief (end, head). 

Definition - The meaning is To carry on to a final close; to bring out into a perfected state; to accomplish; to perform...

My disdain for the use of Achievement Gap in k-12 education:

Before I list my reasons, let me pose this question: When should anything in K-12 be at a point of "a perfected state?"

First, these "measures" are almost exclusively standardized tests.  When you see the plural, it really means more than one test has been given to "demonstrate" that some kids do not score as well as others, and there is consistency in the kids who do not do well.  Written (and circle-coloring) testing is too narrow a measurement for something as important as our children.

Second, these tests are given to children.  This, in my mind, is where I have the problem with the term "achievement" in describing the discrepancy of the test results among kids.  With no disrespect intended, we are talking about kids; kids who have had no opportunity to ACHIEVE anything in life because...well, they are kids.  Sure, some young people will accomplish some extraordinary feats, but that is why they are considered "extra"ordinary.

How many possible extraordinary actions have we missed because our kids were too busy worrying about scoring in the upper 5th percentile of a test that will not dictate personal success in actually accomplishing anything of substance?

Sadly, when kids see their results and they do not do well, this is not as much of an indication of what the kid has done in the past as much as it affects what the child will do in the future...they will BELIEVE THEY CANNOT ACHIEVE in their future.  This "self-fulfilled," "other-induced" prophecy is what disturbs me.  Students give up when there is no reason to do so.  The emphasis (and blind, religious zealousy) on testing is crippling the potential of people before they are even teenagers! 

Kids are attending school, but they have dropped out by the 5th or 6th grade, because they have been told they are not "achieving" at the same level of their peers.

Third, adults who are concerned with the education of children usually have good intentions, but they know not what they do when they use the words they use.  In this case, the use of the word "achievement gap" is used to say some kids do not perform as well as others on a test.  As adults we think we know what all kids at a given age should know...because we are adults with an education, the ones on the good side of the achievement gap.  Yes, I am implying a level of pomposity in the process of creating tests which the educated believe to be "fair to all kids."  Call it what it really is - TESTING GAP - then I'll be quiet about this issue.  We are ripping the hearts and spirits out of our kids!  If you don't see it or believe it, I have an open invitation to spend two days with me in my class.

Fourth, by segregating the data, we think that we can identify the children who need more help.  Here's what is really happening. We have created categories of children based on gender, race, and economics so we can maintain their rightful societal places, secure stereotypes, and create a permanent underclass. 

Yes, more kids are "passing" the tests, but the students are not fooled.  They still know if they can read and understand what they read.  The students know if they really understand Algebra at the age of 13. 

Further, I have a futuristic concern for the kids who are coming out on the positive side of the testing.  I have watched tests get easier and easier in order for schools to meet "Annual Yearly Progress." 

Some students are not working very hard at all, but they are testing at very high levels.  They are forming a false sense of accomplishment and "achievement."  They have yet to achieve anything of substance in life.  Although they will now be given opportunities that others will not be awarded, as if tests demonstrate ability, value, or contribution to humanity.

Fifth, Adults are fooling themselves into believing our kids are prepared for their next level of life and school, when they see test results.  Why do kids drop-out?  All kinds of reasons, but my guess is that the students who drop out are smart enough to know they are playing a game adults call school, and they are tired of the game.  These "false negatives" we call test results are not revealing the cancer that permeates the lives of our nation's kids. 

So what is my approach to help my 7th grade students prepare to succeed in life (and on tests)?

  1. I know my material.
  2. I get to know my students and what motivates them.
  3. In general, middle schoolers are rebels and like to prove others wrong.  They are competitive. So I set my kids up against the enemy - adults who make them take these tests (politicians, testing companies, future teachers and admins).  I'll explain this below.
  4. I do whatever it takes, as long as it is ethical, to get my kids to know the content.  I will not cheat for them or cheat them out of a real education.
EXPLANATION: Item #3 can easily be misinterpreted, so here is what I let my kids know. 

Politicians are using kids to get elected.  Test scores can be used either way.  Incumbents use good score to show that they are responsible for better schools.  Challengers use bad test scores to show they will do something different (like Obama did).  Either way, nothing really changes, except that kids will be used to get politicians elected.

Testing Companies must create tests that politicians will use in their states to get elected.  This means that in order for tests to be considered valid and reliable, not every student can pass (or meet the standard).  If every child passes, then the test is too easy, and politicians will not contract with that testing company.  A certain number of students are not meant to pass.  It is intentional.  So they will use words that make them sound smart, that kids will not know: not content words, but words or idioms in the question. 

For example, "What conclusion can you draw from this photograph?"  There is no Spanish equivalent for this idiomatic phrase, so ELL students from Mexico are looking to literally draw a something.  Is that considered "racially biased?"

Future Teachers and Administrators do not know the kids they will have, so many of them make judgments based on test scores and punitive records (I also don't like the term "discipline" when it is punishment, but that's another post for another time).  The scores you get from tests will determine which classes (and which teachers) you will get in the future.  If students want the good teachers, the fun teachers, the teachers who will care about them, then getting good test scores is necessary.  It is the game of school they must play.  It's a shame, really, but we are all human, and we have been conditioned to judge students on their scores.

Final thought: To borrow from, and update Dr. King:  I have a dream that one day my students will be judged not on the results of their test scores but on the resolve of their commitment to personal excellence.

Posted via email from Murry's World

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