School Report Cards Widen the Gap between Rich and Poor

"No Child Left Behind" they called it.  It was trumpeted in 2001 as the way to ensure that poor and minority students would also have high quality education.  By testing all students to measure their proficiency in 2 of the 3Rs, then disaggregating the data to ensure that special ed kids, ESL kids and minority kids also met benchmarks, low performing schools would have to improve.  Even before NCLB though, Oregon instituted School Report Cards.  The Report Cards rated schools based on student test scores and were published in newspapers and mailed home to parents.  The shame of a low grade motivated schools to focus on whatever would raise their grades the next year.

Sadly though, NCLB and the state accountability movements -- school report cards, frequent high stakes testing and teaching to the tests -- have widened not narrowed the gap between high poverty schools and those in more privileged neighborhoods.  Consider the following two Oregon schools of approximately the same size:

School A is an elementary school of 320 students.  The student-teacher ratio is 25:1.  In addition to regular classroom teachers, the school has 4 additional specialists who enrich the program.  There is a music specialist, a PE specialist, a TAG/Pre-algebra specialist and a school counselor.  When the first School Report Cards came out in 1998, 92% of School A's 5th graders met or exceeded standards in both reading and math.
School B  is an elementary school of 340 students.  The student-teacher ratio is 34:1.  In addition to regular classroom teachers, the school has 2 ESL teachers and 2 teacher coaches for math and reading.  There are no music, art, TAG or PE specialists and no school counselor.  School B's 1998 performance was 76% of students meeting or exceeding standards in reading and a paltry 27% in math.  By 2011, 64% of 5th graders met standards in reading and 49% in math.

School A celebrated its good fortune and carried on, testing as needed but without agony.  At School B, all available resources were deployed to provide remedial support to students below the state standards, in order to push them into the "meets standards" category.  At School A, the focus was on enriched education, though reading and math were certainly not ignored.  School A's students practiced their basic skills in highly engaging science, social studies and arts activities.  School B's students drilled and practiced with little opportunity to apply their reading and math skills to engaging activities. 

Today, students at School B do not receive the quality of education available at School A.  Yes, it's good that their Math performance has improved.  But the breadth and depth of their education have suffered.  The gap between what is available in the two schools has widened over the years, even as the gap in test scores has narrowed.

As you undoubtedly guessed, School A is in a privileged part of Oregon.  The Free and Reduced Lunch rate (how poverty is measured in schools) is just 4%.  At School B, 79% of students qualify for lunch subsidies.  The wealthier families can rejoice that their students are treated to appropriate music, art and PE as well as science and social studies instruction.  The poorer ones see their children come home bored and frustrated from their test-centered curriculum.  Both schools are predominantly white.

If you fast forward to middle and high school, similar patterns emerge.  Resources in our poorer schools are spent on reading specialists, special education, ESL instruction and remedial support.  In our wealthier schools, AP classes, multiple foreign languages (School A's high school offers 4 languages; School B's offers 1) and richer music offerings excite learners. 

Whenever we decide to focus narrowly on a single objective, hopefully we move towards it.  We also move away from other objectives.  Have we moved too far in the direction of remediation and away from application of skills and broad-based education?  If students see no way to USE their reading and math skills, how well will they retain and be able to apply them beyond the classroom?

   See also:  Boring!