“It’s a sign of a fundamental imbalance: The tests matter deeply for teachers and principals, whose jobs and salaries depend on improving scores. But the lengthy exams don’t matter much to students.” – Washington Post
A colleague sent me a link to an article about a high school principal, who had rescinded a policy that would prohibit participation in sports for students who failed to show up for mandated state tests. To the uninitiated this appears to be another case of an educator making a bad decision. To those, like me, who have led a school in a high-pressure, high-stakes, ‘take no prisoners’, school accountability environment, this decision is exactly what it appears to be—an act of desperation.
For the first four years of our SOL tests (SOL stands for Standards of Learning), schools were accountable but students were not. During those four years, some students would often finish three-hour tests in forty minutes. Some would draw pictures on their answer sheets and generally make a mockery of the testing process.
Knowing that they were at the mercy of the students and completely dependent on their good will, principals tried everything to encourage students to do their best. They offered grade incentives. One school even said that any student scoring proficient would earn a “B” as a final grade in the tested courses. Schools had assemblies and offered prizes. The bottom line is that we were desperate.
I must add that our teachers had excellent relationships with our students and, in most cases, the students would put forth effort simply because their teachers cared so much. However, we had time to build a school personalized school culture that emphasized the importance of student-teacher relationships. I cannot imagine what it would be like to go into a new school that was beginning to develop a positive culture and having to depend on the good will of the students when the staff barely had time to get to know them.
As soon as the exams began to count for the students, the world suddenly shifted. Instead of begging students to show up and do their best, our biggest problem became how to get food to students who were taking four hours to complete an Algebra test.
I am reminded of a conversation I had few years ago with a high school faculty. This was a school that had been restructured. All teachers had to reapply for their jobs and only half were rehired. The school also had a new principal and a new administrative staff.
We were discussing accountability and one teacher mentioned that the students were “Christmas-treeing” the tests. While I had never heard the term “Christmas-treeing,” I quickly figured out that the students were not taking the tests seriously and were using the answer sheets to create drawings. We used to call this “Mickey Mouse-ing” a test. In our discussion, the teachers talked about their frustration with the lack of student accountability. The school, the teachers, and the administrators were being held accountable for the results of the test, but the students were not.
In reality, the careers of these educators as well as the reputation of the school and the school district depended on the good will of the students. Teacher evaluation systems that include student test scores are now being implemented in many states in which students are not accountable in any way for the results of the test. If students do not feel like taking the test, there is nothing that can be done.
This is not the first time that I have had this discussion. I worked with one district in which all the high school principals were fired or replaced and hundreds of teachers fired or transferred on the basis of student test scores and that state had absolutely no student accountability.
In yet another state, a high school principal lamented that his students inexplicably decided that they were not going to put forth their best effort on the state tests. Despite the school sending record numbers of students to four-year colleges, the high school was placed on a state list of “low-performing schools.”
In yet another high school, the students openly admitted that they “flagged” the state tests. In fact, the Salutatorian of his class, who was to attend an Ivy League school, failed to score proficient on the state reading test.
If student motivation is not enough of a challenge, now come the parents. Parents across the country are “opting out” their children from state tests. In one school district, a School Board member opted her child out of state testing.
Don’t Blame the Students
High schools are at a big disadvantage. The older the students, the harder it is to motivate them to take the tests seriously. A part of me understands the students. They have been taking these tests since elementary school, and in many cases, they never see the results. So, after a while, they get tired of taking tests, which to them are meaningless.
The Bottom Line
From experience I have learned that unless everyone—students, teachers, administrators, schools, and school districts– is held accountable for student performance, there is not true accountability. Unless everyone is working collectively and collaboratively toward a common goal, we have no accountability system. However, we do have an effective system to create desperate people and to punish schools, principals, and teachers.