Wednesday, December 3, 2014

Can You Judge a School By Its Report Card?

by Elizabeth Thiel,

teacher, parent, member of Oregon Save our Schools

A lot of people look at state report cards to a get glimpse of what a school is like, especially when they’re considering a new neighborhood. If you looked at the recent report card for Vernon Elementary, you might have been shocked or disturbed to see that our neighborhood school received a score of one, the lowest possible score.

I am writing to tell you that this score is deeply misleading; it reflects not the caliber of the school but instead the defective nature of the state’s evaluation criteria.

In case you haven’t spent time at Vernon lately, let me tell you a little about it. Vernon is a thriving, diverse neighborhood school. My two daughters go there, as do about 400 other children from this neighborhood. We have fantastic teachers, engaged parents, and dynamic students. We also have a International Baccalaureate program, a garden that stocks our cafeteria with greens, rich after-school offerings through our SUN school, and art, music, and Spanish and Mandarin language classes during the school day.

This year, Vernon’s state report card score was docked two points from a three to a one. The reason is simple. A growing number of Vernon parents have – in protest – been opting out of the state’s high stakes, standardized testing protocol that ranks and punishes public schools. Whether you agree or not about the value of the testing itself, parents exercising their right not to participate is a punishable act under the current system.

In the 2012-2013 school year, five students opted-out of testing. Last year, eighteen students followed suit. The state’s response to this small protest by individual families has been to deduct a point from the state report card for each year that families opted out. It has nothing whatsoever to do with the quality of education at Vernon.

In Oregon, parents have the right to opt their children out of high-stakes testing, just as they have the right to opt their child out of any school activity they believe is harmful or inappropriate for their child.
The reasons that parents make this choice are varied and personal, but in general, parents are acting on deeply-held beliefs about education and social justice. In opting-out of high stakes testing, Vernon parents are joining a much larger national movement to reject top-down education policies that are harmful to students and communities.

High Stakes Testing Undermines Public Schools

Some parents opt-out of high-stakes testing because they don’t want to participate in a system that is undermining public schools.

Since the No Child Left Behind policies of over a decade ago, states have been required to ramp up standardized testing to a level never before seen in American schools. The intent of these policies may have been to ensure a quality education for all students, but the result has been the opposite.

One reason these tests are considered “high-stakes,” compared to past standardized testing, is because the fate of a school is tied to its scores. In the last decade, over 4000 public schools across the country have been closed using test scores as justification. The overwhelming majority of these closures have been schools that serve low-income families and students of color.

A fundamental flaw in the system of judging schools by test scores is that test scores reflect a student’s family income more than it reflects the quality of their schools and teachers. Across all states, and all school districts, students in poverty tend to score lower than students with more home resources, even when those same students go to affluent “successful” schools. Yet, test scores are often used to label schools as “failing” or “ineffective,” and even to justify their closure or privatization.

High Stakes Testing Narrows Curriculum

Some parents opt-out of testing because they do not want their child to equate their learning with a single number. Beginning in third grade, new tests this year are expected to consume eight hours per child each year. These tests create unneeded stress for students, resulting in a single label of “meeting” or “not meeting” standards. They also take away precious instructional time from meaningful learning experiences. Because of the high stakes for schools, testing encourages schools to narrow the curriculum to the tested subjects.

Opting out of high-stakes tests is a concrete way for parents and students to voice their disagreement with these policies.

Looking Beyond the Score

In our neighborhood, report card rankings are often the only information a family has about a school before they enroll their child. I challenge parents to look beyond these numbers and spend time in their neighborhood school before judging perpetuating false perceptions that Vernon – or other neighborhood schools – are “bad schools.”

I feel so fortunate to be part of the Vernon family. It is invaluable to have a great school within walking distance, to be part of a village of parents here in our neighborhood, and to see my children thriving academically and socially in our diverse and unique community.

I am proud of Vernon parents for standing up against a system that is undermining public education. It is one more reason that I am proud to be an Owl.

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