High Stakes Teaching and the “Value-Added” Sham

by Sikivu Hutchinson

The Los Angeles Times recently weighed in against the city’s scapegoated teachers, giving public school elementary educators low marks on so-called ‘value-added’ assessments – a term that is as corporate as they come. The new regime serves neither teachers nor students. Rather, “the intersection of high stakes testing and zero tolerance discipline policies have created a perfect storm for black and brown students already deemed expendable by teachers and administrators.”

High Stakes Teaching and the “Value-Added” Sham

by Sikivu Hutchinson

The value-added model reduces teacher performance to one decidedly narrow, politically and culturally suspect criterion.”

In one of the more ham-fistedly symbolic episodes of the 1960s Twilight Zone series, an Orwellian tribunal declares people to be “obsolete” based on their allegiance to "outmoded" cultural practices like literacy and critical thought. Operating in the same vein, the L.A. Times’ recent publication of the so-called “value-added” assessments of Los Angeles Unified elementary teachers was another “legitimizing” victory for the destructive regime of high stakes testing and a blow for "outmoded" practices like literacy and critical thought. Puppets in a virtual tribunal, LAUSD educators who have spent years creating classroom environments that challenge and engage students suddenly woke up one morning to find themselves stamped “ineffective” or “effective” based solely on their students’ standardized test scores.

Nationwide, many teachers oppose the value-added model on the grounds that it reduces teacher performance to one decidedly narrow, politically and culturally suspect criterion. Test scores measure how well students can master the culturally prescribed knowledge assessed on standardized, norm-referenced tests, not their critical thinking skills. The regime of No Child Left Behind (NCLB) has institutionalized the practice of teaching to the test, such that culturally responsive approaches to curriculum and instruction are few and far between.

In light of this dynamic, the Times article was noteworthy for its egregious omissions — namely, its failure to provide an analysis of the concrete specific teaching "methodologies" that supposedly inform student testing gains. By smearing teachers that are empathic, culturally responsive and highly regarded by their communities as “ineffective” because of their low test scores, the Times undercut its ostensible motive for this expose. Publishing the value-added results has been defended as a way to “empower” parents, yet the reductive criterion of success in high stakes testing tells us absolutely nothing about whether a teacher is critically conscious about how students’ differential access to power and privilege influences their learning outcomes. It tells us nothing about whether a teacher has tailored her instruction to value and incorporate the cultural capital, lived experience and cultural knowledge that diverse students bring to the classroom. Moreover, it tells us nothing about whether or not that teacher has organized her class to creatively affirm authentic student voices, develop her students as leaders and foster an environment in which cooperative non-hierarchical learning strategies are privileged over drill and kill intellectual taxidermy. Time and again studies from such organizations as Californians' for Justice, Harvard Civil Right’s Project and UCLA’s Institute for Democracy have demonstrated the danger of relying upon standardized tests as the sole criteria for student achievement and teacher effectiveness. The strongest determinant of whether a teacher’s practice is effective is how well they develop culturally respectful relationships with students, create a caring yet rigorous atmosphere for critical inquiry and critical literacy, connect with students’ home cultures, and employ multiple teaching strategies such as instructional conversation, sparing use of lecture, extensive group work and creative and expository writing.

The disproportionate suspension of African American students is a national epidemic that has been exacerbated by the NCLB high stakes testing regime.”

Yet, the Obama administration’s fetishistic emphasis on test scores as the major barometer of teacher effectiveness, a linchpin of its “Race to the Top” initiative, is especially insidious for students of color. For example, the disproportionate suspension of African American students is a national epidemic that has been exacerbated by the NCLB high stakes testing regime. Disengaged from school curricula in which they are not meaningfully reflected, African American students have become ensnared in a public school disciplinary apparatus that fuels the nation’s prison complex. In some LAUSD schools the percentage of African American students who have been suspended is often two and three times greater than their percentage in the general student population. According to the 2001 Indiana University study “The Color of Discipline,” black students were disciplined more harshly than white and Latino students who committed similar infractions. Students who are repeatedly suspended are more likely to drop-out, and are in turn more likely to be funneled into the prison pipeline. A recent report by the Advancement Project concluded that the intersection of high stakes testing and zero tolerance discipline policies have created a perfect storm for black and brown students already deemed expendable by teachers and administrators. Wedded to the bottom line of generating better test and Academic Performance Index (API) scores, schools are increasingly motivated to move “problem” students along to alternative schools and GED programs. Indeed, “zero tolerance and high stakes testing have followed the same path on the way to being…frequently substituted for real education reform.” The value-added sham won’t help parents and communities of color struggling to achieve educational equity for youth who have already been intuitively assigned a jail cell by a public school culture marching in lockstep with the teach to the test ethos.

Sikivu Hutchinson is the editor of blackfemlens.org and a senior fellow with the Washington D.C.-based Institute for Humanist Studies.


School Reforms that Don't Reform or Improve Students Lives

Having been both a student & teacher in Chicago's Public Schools [CPS], I seen reforms that don't reform & improvements that don't improve - neither for the students nor their communities. As a student I saw the teacher's union regularly go on strike every year, not to protest learning conditions for students or for more involvement / empowering of parents, but generally over salaries & politics. The mid/latter 1990s into the 2000s [in the name of reform]- saw Paul Valas & Arnie Duncan become head of CPS Schools, though they had little if any real back-ground in education [Valas was a corp CEO] & were called CPS' 'CEOs'. We never got a real explanation how having corp heads instead of educators in charge would improve CPS Schools - it certainly didn't seem to bring any more funding. There was also the instituting of magnet & charter schools. Charters & military academies really took off w Bush's [who ironically was notoriously anti-intellectual] NCLB initiative [which increased military recruiters access to hi-schoolers] which over emphasized testing [run by private interests like: Neo-con Bill Bennet former Secretary of Ed under Reagan who once basically equated Blacks w criminality, & Mike Milken- convicted Wall St Bankster], & was used to justify wholesale CPS School closings & teacher layoffs [in the name of accountability]. Everything got trimmed [dumbed] down to reading, writing & rithmetic due budget constraints [which saw many schools give concessions to the junk food & soft drink industries while cutting out PE programs to try to make up short-falls - a very unhealthy choice] & NCLB test preps. But when the school faculty knows that their jobs rests on their students performance on these test, they're bound to over-emphasize prepping for these test. Further it incentivizes cheating. Or for those teachers who see the ax coming ahead of time; it motivates them to seek assignments at less at risk schools, seek early retirement, or seek work outside of teaching. Further Chicago is notorious for its political patronage system so when CPS' 'CEO' Duncan ordered school closings such that Charters replace them, those most politically connected are most likely to get these charters. None of these reforms improved overall student academics or their communities [reform that fails to improve]. Its all hype. Urban public schools have generally gone from bad to worse while politicians keep hyping 'reform'. Duncan's / Obama's so-called Race to the Top has federalized this fake reform & opened the door for corporatizing [so-called privatizing] of Public Schools.

Addendum to Above Post;

I started the above post by saying that the Chicago Teachers' Union habitually went on strike while I was a student in CPS Schools, & it was always about money & politics - never about improving learning conditions for the students... Let me give a little historical context... While a student in CPS Schools [60s thru mid 70s]- every school I attended from 1st grade thru hi-school- had principals that were white men. Now most CPS' principals are Black women [w a few Black men, Hispanics, & whites in the mix]. At least half or more of my teachers from K - 12 grade were white. Presumably most of CPS students were white. Now over half [likely the vast majority] of CPS students are Black & Brown & most teachers like-wise [particularly women].

How NCLB / Race to the Top is ‘subtly’ Institutionally Racist:

Excerpts From Democracy-Now! Interview Mon 8-31-2010 w TRACIE WASHINGTON & JORDAN FLAHERTY:
TW: I have a cousin, brilliant young man, and his wife, who were living here in New Orleans, educators, prior to Hurricane Katrina. Yes they are doing well in Houston. But when they lived in New Orleans as educators and educational administrators, their combined salary was far less than $100,000 a year. Both have Master’s degrees. When they moved to Houston, they saw their standard of living increase dramatically. But what frustrates them is that they say, "Look, Tracie, now we see that young Caucasian non-educators have now been able to come into our positions, positions that we should have rightfully had, making far more money than we ever made in New Orleans."
JF: The education system certainly had problems before Katrina, as Tracie talked about. Teachers were not paid well. The system was tragically underfunded. It was not a working system. After Katrina you had a complete shift in the system. Pre-Katrina you had 128 schools; 124 controlled by the local school board. After the storm, the first thing that happened was the entire staff of the school system was fired. All teachers, janitors, cafeteria workers, 7,000-plus employees, were fired. Their union, the largest union in the city, was de-recognized. It was also the largest source of Black political power in the city [the exact same scenario that Arne Duncan applied in NCLB / Race to the Top while running CPS Schools]. It [the teachers’ union] ceased to exist. The schools were then taken away from control by local school board, so that now there are 5 schools under the school board, the rest are controlled by either the state &/or various charters. Superintendent Paul Vallas [yes the same former CPS CEO predecessor to Arne Duncan] has called this a 100% choice system, what he proudly calls a free market system [remember he has a corp background & mentality]. That is a microcosm of what we’ve seen in all aspects of the post-Katrina New Orleans, where it’s about survival of the fittest system [thus a Social Darwinistic -dog eat dog – overtly competition driven – Corp 'free-market' doctrine]…
There are important lessons to learn around the country from New Orleans, not just if you’re scared of a hurricane, but if you’re concerned about any of these issues— housing health-care, criminal justice, education— because we saw these issues in New Orleans,.. played out in hyper-speed... Suddenly all the teachers fired. Suddenly all the public housing closed up & shuttered up & the people not allowed back in. Suddenly all the schools taken away from local control and put under state control & transferred over to the charter system [So-called Public-Private Partnerships at work]. Virtually overnight these changes happened [Naomi Klein's Shock Doctrine Analysis].

Excellent points all

I would emphasize that standardized testing has a long established history of subtle or not so subtle racism. (I personally excelled on standardized test so don't take this as sour grapes). What standardized tests do (although how "well" is questionable) is test a wide swath of subjects, knowledge, details. They do not test more subtle intelligence including emotional intelligence. I believe I did well on standardized tests due primarily to being a voracious reader. This not only increased my vocabulary or linguistic skills, it also increased by analytical and comprehension skills, and my general intellectual curiosity. And one moment of intellectual curiosity or spark, leads to another. The reading I engaged in was part of a building block process. I'll take any child who reads a lot over one that doesn't. Which is not to say the non-reader is absent of gifts, he or she may be more of a three-dimensional or linear thinker. Therefore, the "gear-head" in high school might be a NASCAR engineer or mechanic, and I don't think anyone would consider that they do "easy."

Standardized tests do nothing but sterilize and sanitize and compartmentalize the learning experience. Learning is not rote nor is it "checking the box." Standardized tests are a HUGE reason American is lacking in critical thinking. I can attest as someone who's dabbled as a adjunct instructor for decades. Students are increasingly robotic and imbued with a sense of entitlement; it's why grade inflation is rampant. But the quality of the writing and thinking is shoddy. I dread writing assignments for fear of reading something unintelligible or a product of wholesale plagiarism.

For the life of me I don't understand the lack of a BIPARTISAN effort to scrap standardized tests. Before they started advocating the abolition of the Dept. of Ed. conservatives had disdain for federal control of local education ("neighborhood schools" or local control was the root basis--in part--for attacking court ordered busing or affirmative action in education). The fact that conservatives are now behind NCLB is reason in itself to be suspect. They never advocate anything--or not much of anything-designed for the commonweal or greater good. Isn't it interesting how politicians want to hold teachers accountable for parenting while they themselves are utterly unaccountable for governing?

Yes, NCLB is dripping with racist and elitist intent.