The High Stakes of Life and Death

Over the past two years my opinion of high stakes testing has evolved. When I was a teacher I had no problem preparing my students for the ISAT, the Illinois standardized test, without giving up guided reading and writer's workshop. Before I became a principal I spent a year in the Performance Management department of our district office, assigned to low-performing schools to help them improve. I drank the Kool-Aid and believed test scores were an accurate measurement of success.

When I became a principal I still believed in the accuracy of test scores, but I also wanted our teachers to adopt proven methods that were student-focused. I threw out the podiums that our elementary and middle school teachers had in their classrooms, reminding teachers that even at the college level not many people enjoy listening to a professor's lecture. Our school had been deemed 'failing' for all but one year since the inception of No Child Left Behind. It was on "probation" and the school was constantly inundated with people telling them what to do, regardless of whether their advice worked or not. To help increase the test scores we did some test-prep, which might, or might not, have contributed to significant gains the first year. The second year we achieved test score gains again, and I was confident we would accomplish what was required to be taken off "probation." Our electronic ankle bracelet would finally be removed.

We had to wait for the official calculations of the value-added scores. Our raw test scores outpaced the district by two-to-three times the average, but when our value-added scores were released we missed the cut-off by tenths of a percent. We failed, despite all the effort we put in. Due to the established rules, it would take another two years to get off probation. I immediately regretted not forcing more test-prep the second year.

Regret didn't last long as I became livid when I found a potential flaw in the value-added formula linked to how we calculate which children qualify for free-and-reduced lunch status, a small part of the value-added formula. I argued that because the numbers might not be entirely accurate, the value-added score should be thrown out. Despite some key people in central office admitting that the underlying data used in the formula might be flawed, they claimed it was a minor issue, and one they couldn't fix since they didn't know the truthful rate of who qualified for free-and-reduced lunch. I even hand-delivered a letter detailing this issue to our mayor, but eventually I realized it was falling on deaf ears.

It was at that moment I realized that everything teachers and principals had been complaining about regarding high stakes tests, that the tests were not the paragon of objectivity they had been touted as, was true. The schools that tended to succeed on the tests were in more affluent neighborhoods. The schools in poor neighborhoods that did well were magnet, selective-enrollment, and charter schools, which could filter out the students and families who faced the most significant challenges. It was a wake-up call for me, but not nearly as much as what happened next.

Two months later, a week before Christmas, we received news that a fifth grade student had died. Unfortunately news of students dying wasn't that unusual. In my less than four years as principal we've lost six students. Four were gang-related; teenagers killed the year after they graduated from our school. One of the worst cases went missing for over a month during one of the snowiest winters in Chicago history. It wasn't until the snow and ice melted that his body was found in one of the lagoons at Marquette Park.

The loss of the fifth grade student was different only in part because it wasn't gang-related. His family had done everything "right". His parents were married and both employed. All the family members were upstanding citizens. His aunts worked at our school, and he was often one of the first and last people at our school. He probably spent as much time there as I did. Everyone in the school knew him for his infectious smile and sense of humor.

The boy, his father, and older brother had been driving to get haircuts for the holidays. The police were in a high speed chase pursuing a carjacker. The criminal ignored a stoplight and barreled into their family van, spinning it so violently that the boy was ejected from the back seat and died on the scene, before his older brother could say his final goodbye. It was a death that could have been avoided since police aren't supposed to engage in high speed car chases, especially in residential neighborhoods. The tragedy and senselessness of it all was partially encapsulated at his funeral, when one of the ministers sarcastically asked how the police couldn't find the carjacker, who was white, in Englewood, an all-black neighborhood on Chicago's south side.

We held a vigil at our school and several hundred people attended. Sweet Baby Ray's donated over a thousand dollars of food to the event. News crews attended and interviewed the family.

I was still angry that our school was deemed failing due to test scores, but in the midst of grieving for our student, I realized that not only are the tests not objective, they are absurd and irrelevant to the real goals of the members of the school community.

Here we are, administrators, teachers, students, and parents, focused on developing the social, emotional, and academic skills of our children so they grow up to be happy, healthy, and successful, but it is all reduced to a single standardized test score. A number. We mourn the losses of those who make bad decisions and join gangs, but at the end of the day, what matters are the test scores. We work with organizations to help stabilize local housing, train parents to be leaders, offer counseling for mental health, and mentor our youth in positive directions. We implement restorative justice, reduce suspensions, get more students on track to graduate high school and attend college. We develop the capacity of teachers to adopt student-centered instructional methods, hoping it will translate to higher test scores, but all is for naught if the scores don't meet a certain number. The school and the community are deemed as failures, compared and pitted against schools and communities with more resources, or with rules that make the comparison apples to oranges. It forces schools to abandon anything and everything that strays from focusing on the test. I know of PE and art teachers that are pressed into service as reading instructors; recess that becomes time for test-prep; science perverted into practice with nonfiction reading, and no time doing science.

I became an educator because I believe in the power of schools to change people's lives and to ensure a more equitable society for all. Yet high stakes tests have only furthered the inequity by punishing schools and communities that are already struggling. Currently the vast majority of schools that are the lowest ranked schools in Chicago are predominantly African-American in the most struggling communities. The tests simply affirm what we already know, the status quo, they don't help to change it.

I firmly believe teachers, administrators, and schools need to be held accountable for their effectiveness, but high stakes tests clearly aren't the solution. There are other methods of assessment, such as student learning portfolios that can demonstrate more holistically and meaningfully about what a child has learned, and how the child has learned. Unfortunately, there is no conversation about alternatives to high stakes tests.

The loss of that young student made me realize more than ever just how fragile life can be. I want to focus the time I have left helping students, families, and teachers. Regardless of what method we use to hold everyone accountable, students and schools can't be reduced to a number. That boy wasn't just a test score: his life mattered.