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Do you want a definition of educational insanity? It is not just the old chestnut about doing the same thing over and over again, after seeing that it fails every time. It is taking a holistic program intended to support the social, emotional, mental, and physical needs of homeless children and judging its success or failure by standardized test scores. This is madness!
Yet as Marilena Marchetti explains in this article, that is exactly what is happening in New York City. The city has a huge population of homeless families and children. Mayor Bill de Blasio created a “community schools” initiative to help these children with the multiple supports that they need. Marilena teaches in one of these schools.
I work as an occupational therapist in Bronx District 10 where the highest number of homeless students are enrolled. A cornerstone of the Initiative is that school sites become resource hubs for vulnerable families, thereby making access to social services and programs easier. The program adopts a “whole child” approach that sees schools as places where social-emotional, mental and physical health are valued as much as academics. Quality and accountability to performance measures are emphasized to reassure families, communities and donors that success matters. Without a doubt, it is a tremendous step in the right direction.
High expectations have taken hold, flowing from the desperate circumstances of so many school communities alongside the financial investments and political clout associated with the program. Despite the many positives, I fear the Community Schools Initiative is operating with an internal contradiction that may doom it to fail if it is not corrected. The major problem is this: All the wonderful programming and promises of the Community Schools Initiative could be taken away if, after three years’ time, standardized test scores are not raised. Interestingly, nowhere in the 43-page Community Schools Strategic Plan are the terms “standardized test” or “high stakes test” used, as those phrases have been rightfully maligned by the Opt Out movement. No matter the semantics, the writing is on the wall. The plan talks about “tiered interventions that impact large numbers of students and families,” “aligned program supports and services that promote student proficiency in Common Core standards,” “processes for on-going review of student data” and “established performance improvement metrics and processes,” all of which are references to testing and its repercussions.
Later in the document, the following is stated:
“Within the Community Schools Initiative, on-going data collection will inform practice, track progress, and connect data with targeted outcomes [emphasis added]. Data collection will include both qualitative and quantitative data, both of which will allow City government leadership and researchers the opportunity to track Community Schools’ outcomes (pp. 29).”
It isn’t necessary to say directly what teachers, families and students in Community Schools can read between the lines: You must pass or you will perish. Just like adding one drop of red dye to a glass of water turns the entire liquid red, so goes the entire school culture when standardized testing is applied and laden with grave possible consequences. Tying test scores to funding streams and to the possibility that a school would be protected from being shut down reinforces the fear, anxiety and sense of instability that is meant to be alleviated for our children living on the brink. Must the issue of survival for them always remain an open question? Imagine struggling to improve teaching and learning under this pretext.
Chalk it up to the forcefulness of the Opt Out movement that high-stakes testing has finally been dialed down, albeit only slightly. Thanks to the many parents, teachers and students who spoke up, we can no longer deny that high stakes testing leads to a narrowing of the curriculum and all manner of stress for our young people. It undermines children’s interest in learning and teachers’ ability to engage them. When standardized-test results play even the tiniest part in determining if a Community School be allowed to stay open and continue receiving financial support for special services and programming, it sabotages the goal to boost academic achievement for students who need it most.
Using standardized test scores to judge a program serving homeless children is like judging fish by their ability to fly or judging horses by their ability to read or judging all children by their ability to run a mile in four minutes.