Kristina Rizga’s piece at Mother Jones on her experiences in a supposedly failing San Francisco high school is just fantastic. Following a Salvadoran immigrant who saw some pretty horrible stuff back home, Rizga shows how dedicated teachers and administrators created a positive learning environment in a diverse school.
One of the most diverse high schools in the country, Mission has 925 students holding 47 different passports. The majority are Latino, African American, and Asian American, and 72 percent are poor. Yet even as the school was being placed on the list of lowest-performing schools, 84 percent of the graduating class went on to college, higher than the district average; this year, 88 percent were accepted. (Nationally, 32 percent of Latino and 38 percent of African American students go to college.) That same year, Mission improved Latinos’ test scores more than any other school in the district. And while suspensions are skyrocketing across the nation, they had gone down by 42 percent at Mission. Guthertz had seen dropout rates fall from 32 percent to 8 percent. Was this what a failing school looked like?
By the metrics used under No Child Left Behind and anti-teacher “reformers” like Michelle Rhee, yes. And this is incredibly stupid, as are the standards themselves. As a historian, this bit on the standardized testing in history made me furious:
As Roth retreated to his desk, Maria stared at the rows of empty bubbles. A sharp, pounding pain filled her head. She picked up a pencil and read the first question:
During the late 19th and 20th centuries, urban immigrants generally supported local political machines that:
(a) discouraged the new immigrants from participating in civic affairs.
(b) were usually supported by urban reformers.
(c) provided essential services to the immigrants.
(d) reminded immigrants of political practices in their homelands.
As always, Maria started translating the words into Spanish. Then she got to discouraged. She’d seen the word many times before, but it was usually in a context where she could guess the meaning of the passage without knowing every term. In this short sentence, though, there were no hints.
She tried to remember the word’s meaning for a few minutes. Nothing.
Affairs was another word she’d heard before but couldn’t remember. She translated the rest of the sentence—new immigrants from participating—but that didn’t help. She took a deep breath and translated the rest of the answers. B was a possibility, she thought, but something felt off. C seemed right. But what about A? What if that was really the answer? There was no way of knowing. She filled in C for now.
“Five more minutes, everyone!” Roth interrupted. An ambulance siren wailed outside. Maria had spent too much time on the first five questions, and now she had to rush. She translated another page and randomly bubbled in the rest.
When she switched to the written section of the test, her leg stopped bouncing. When the bell rang, Maria kept writing, and didn’t stop until Roth collected the pages from her.
Roth waited until the last student had left the room, and we looked over Maria’s test together. She got almost all the answers wrong on the practice multiple-choice section, the only one that would have counted for the state. On Roth’s essay question, she got an A+.
There is so much here to protest. First, these tests automatically discriminate against people for whom English is not their first language. The profiled student did not really learn English until 9th grade. So it’s hardly surprising that she might not know what some of these words meant. It doesn’t mean she’s not smart or learning rapidly or that the school is failing her. It means that for reasons outside of her or the school’s control, she doesn’t have the English language skills that native-born speakers do. I’d like to see Michelle Rhee take a standardized test in Spanish about Mexican history after just 3 years of learning the language, despite the obvious educational advantages someone like Rhee has.
Second, why are we doing multiple choice tests in history? What does multiple choice show? Anything? The ability to memorize I guess. Does it promote understanding? Critical thinking? Real-life skill building? No. None of it. The article doesn’t really explore what the essay portion that the young woman scored so well on was about, but wouldn’t that be so much more valuable? If California wants to use standardized testing, go all AP on it and hire readers to go over these essays and grade them. At least that would give these students a chance to show their ability. Instead, that essay doesn’t really count for anything in standardized testing.
I do not use multiple choice tests in my college classes. Why? Because they test nothing valuable and because they can destroy the grades of students who may not have a great factual basis in the material or a good memory for these types of things. Instead, short answer essays allow students to show what they do know instead of what they don’t know and create scenarios for partial credit.
Meanwhile, despite the huge obstacles this school faces, they are placing kids in college, graduating them at high rates, etc. But I guess we should fire the principle or something because the test scores aren’t high enough. Absolutely absurd and outrageous.
But hey, instead of focusing on the poverty, language barriers, and economic inequality that creates educational disparities, let’s instead have our wealthy white California high schools hold “Seniores and Señoritas” dress-up days, where our next generation of plutocrats can dress up as cholos and wear sombreros.
Even better, why not just force immigrants into a permanent underclass. That’s the new official policy of the Republican Party after all, which just included a plank in their platform that would deny federal education funding to any state that offered in-state tuition to undocumented immigrants. California is one of 12 states to still offer this for its residents and this policy would ruin any chance for higher education for the young woman profiled in Rizga’s piece.