CHAPTER THREE: “New Standards and Old Inequalities: How Testing Narrows and Expands the Opportunity Gap”
When schools focus on test scores, the author demonstrates, the end result is that curriculum and instruction changes—paralleling test content, format, and cognitive demands, rather than teaching more broadly and deeply. Much time is spent preparing students by mimicking the tests and by utilizing multiple-choice layouts and stressing recall and recitation. Consequently, competencies in writing, reading, critical thinking, research, and computer technologies are deemphasized.
Many U.S. teachers feel they must rush through subject areas—ultimately covering topics in a superficial manner. Meanwhile, high-achieving countries teach fewer concepts, but approach them in a deeper, more comprehensive way—leading to more learning and higher-order thinking as they persist to graduation. Unfortunately, much prepping for tests occurs in schools serving low-income and racial/ethnic minority students. As a result, college preparatory instruction is significantly reduced in favor of meeting test score targets.
If standards are to be used, then investments must also be made in finding appropriate and accurate assessment tools as well as enhancing teacher expertise. Professional development training, curricular and instructional resources, financial support, and sophisticated recruitment and retention measures must maintain, increase, and improve.
The changes that need to be made, according to Darling-Hammond, are systemic. Sanctioning low performance is a facile way of deceiving the public that reform is taking place when it is not. Harsh sanctioning has resulted not in improved schools, generally speaking, but, rather, in inequality in access to resources, highly qualified teachers, and substantive curricula.
Another problem the author highlights is that penalties levied against low-performing schools did not eventuate in higher test scores. Instead, it merely increased retention (staying back) and dropout rates in many school districts across the country. Grade retention is not a substitute for seriously and successfully addressing poor performing schools. Improvements among classroom practices, teacher quality, instructional resources, and state-of-the-art technologies are elemental to any strategizing efforts to address so-called failing schools. Investments in these components would do more than any type of retributive measures, Darling-Hammond asserts. She states: “It is not surprising that data from the National Center for Education Statistics indicate decreases in 4-year graduation rates between 1995 and 2001 in Florida, Indiana, New York, North Carolina, and South Carolina as new high-stakes testing policies were introduced in each state.” (77)
Darling-Hammond explores the “Texas Miracle,” some features of which were instrumental in shaping the Bush administration’s No Child Left Behind. Part and parcel of the “success” of test results in Texas was the fact that many low-performing students were increasingly retained or dropped out and, therefore, were no longer taking the Texas Assessment of Academic Skills (TAAS). Unfortunately many of these students were persons of color, whose graduation rates were abysmal.
In numerous cities, in Texas and across the country, African American and Latino students have been disproportionately placed in classrooms with uncertified and inexperienced teachers. Moreover, when a teacher’s instructional skills improved, more often than not that teacher would be assigned to classrooms that were predominantly White. Consequently, minority students were increasingly placed in classrooms with ineffective teachers. As a result, students and parents could not count on the schools to be places where real learning occurs. This lack of accountability is grossly unfair and militates against the type of society we say and claim we want to be. In Massachusetts and elsewhere, minority students would attend classes with professionals that failed to meet the guidelines of No Child Left Behind. Darling-Hammond explains: “Rather than increasing incentives to attract well-qualified teachers to these districts, the state’s primary response was to issue waivers of certification requirements and to argue against greater investments in such districts. . .” (96)
The author clearly concludes that “substantially upgrading the quality of curriculum and teaching” across the board is the only solution to successful classroom learning!