My class just finished their STAR testing this past week, and as I near the end of my first full year back in a public school classroom, I have a deeper understanding of the pressures that public school teachers and administrators have been facing. I am more likely now to sympathize with teachers who find themselves teaching to the test instead of tailoring instruction to the needs of their students. I can even feel some sympathy for those well-meaning but misguided administrators who have bought into the idea that they can make things better by “getting tough” with their teachers instead of supporting and inspiring them. I can forgive a lot of the wrong-headed and half-baked ideas that have grown out of the standards and testing movement, but every once in a while something comes up that is beyond the pale.  For this post I want to consider one such concept: the “strategic” student.

When I first heard the term I assumed that we were discussing students with a penchant for problem solving, but it turns out that the term “strategic” refers not to any strategy of the students, but rather to a strategy by the staff and administration to increase standardized test scores. You see, strategic students are those who are at the upper end of their scoring category on the standardized tests.  In other words, they are the students who just missed the next higher classification by a few points. The reasoning goes that if schools target their resources on their “strategic” students, then they will get the most bang for their buck in terms of test score improvement.

The practice of identifying and targeting these students has become fairly widespread from what I have heard. The idea makes perfect sense, as long as you are willing to abandon any presumption of equity or fairness to students. I remember being frustrated in my first public school job that I was pressured to focus primarily on the struggling children. In seemed unfair to the more advanced students in my class that my extra time should be focused on the kids who were below grade level, and that the curriculum should be limited by the lowest common denominator. At least in that situation you could argue that the most needy kids were getting the most support. With the “strategic” student model, extra support is doled out according to the totally arbitrary dividing lines between scoring categories. It doesn’t matter if you scored Far Below Basic, Below Basic, or Proficient. If you are at the top of your scoring group then you deserve extra support and attention, but if you are in the middle of your group then you are not yet worthy of the extra effort. Of course, we’ll never have to waste our time on the “Advanced” kids, as they have nothing left to offer us.

I suppose this is an inevitable outcome of placing test scores above all else. At some point, people began to accept the idea that a school’s main mission is not to meet the needs of its students, but to improve their test scores. To be more precise, I think many educators have unwittingly accepted the premise that these goals are one in the same. Unfortunately, the standardized tests that have become the focal point of the school year are so poorly designed and mismatched with the developmental readiness of our kids, that it is nearly impossible to meet the real academic needs of the students if our primary focus is improving their tests scores.

It makes no sense to start with the test and work backwards. We are supposed to start with the students, determine what they need and then develop the best program to move each of them (yes, even the advanced ones) ahead throughout the school year. I have no problem with an assessment at the end of the year to give us more information about how far each student has come, but the STAR test I administered over the last two weeks bears very little resemblance to such an assessment. Using it as the primary motivator for any educational decision, especially one that is as patently unfair at the targeting of “strategic” students, reveals how much we have allowed ourselves to be distracted by the chess game of testing and accountability, and how far we have drifted from our core values and common sense.


About maestromitch

I have been teaching in California schools, both public and private, for the last 15 years. I started to blog as an attempt to further the conversation about the state of our public school system, and to make the case for a more balanced and rational approach to educating our children.
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2 Responses to Strategery

  1. Sarah says:

    As a former independent school colleague of yours who now does educational reform work for a large urban public district here in the Bay Area, I hear you and I spend all too much time thinking about these things. Here’s an interesting twist I invite people to consider, brought to our school’s attention this year by our Third Grade team as a result of an a-ha moment they had during one of their formative assessment data analysis release days:

    What about those kids who are not “strategic”, as you describe them (not a term our school or district uses, so a new concept to me, but I get exactly what you are talking about), but who are … well … the opposite of strategic? The inverse? Those kids who are just a few points *above* the bottom margin of a performance band, the ones you want to keep from slipping DOWN out of Advanced and into (G-d forbid) Proficient, or out of Proficient into Basic?

    The California Department of Education’s website contains a fascinating tool, at least to data nerds like me: an API calculator. Here is one of the many things this tool will tell you: in the calculation of your site’s API, your site get 1000 points (weighted) for every non-Special Ed kid who scores Advanced. You get 875 for each Proficient score, and 700 for every Basic. It also tells you your school’s API calculation includes a weighted score of 500 for every student scoring Below Basic, and (yes) a score of only 200 for every student who scores in the Far Below Basic performance band.

    How many teachers are even aware of this system, much less understand it? How many administrators? Yeah–until I looked it up, neither did I. What does THAT mean when we ask ourselves on which students we should be focusing?

    On the flip side: Friday morning I attended a not-so-enticingly named “Tier 1” meeting, with the instructional coaches and principals of the six lowest-performing schools in our area of the district. We talked a lot about data, about measurement, about performance…and, fortunately, about student learning. Our district implemented a new standards-aligned formative assessment this year which we gave at the end of each quarter, and one principal shared with us that at his site every student reading at grade level scored the equivalent of what could potentially be correlated to the Proficient band on the CST (potentially, because it is the first year so no correlation can be made yet since there are not yet CST scores to which to compare anything). And that got me to thinking.

    So, I went back to my school, and found the trusty API calculator, and looked at our site’s scores from 2010. Every kid who scored Advanced I kept at Advanced. And, just for the heck of it, I created an artificial set of scores in which every student scoring FBB, BB, or Basic now scored Proficient…which, as the principal in the Tier 1 meeting postulated, they might do if they were reading on grade level. And then I calculated the potential API that might result. Now, I believe about 19% of our testable population (grades 2-5) is classified as Special Ed which means they either take the CST with accommodations and/or modifications, or they take the CMA, or they take the CAPA. All of which will throw something like an imaginary API off. But I was just playing, so bear with me.

    Our current base API score for 2010 is something like 749. If every kid at my school NOT in Special Ed scored Proficient, our API would go up somewhere between 120 and 140 points. We would no longer be in Program Improvement. We would no longer be considered “Tier 1.” And I would have coached myself right out of a job. Hmm….

    So tell me, now how should we be using our instructional time?

  2. maestromitch says:

    Wow Sarah, thanks for sharing that! I had no idea about the scoring system for API. It is actually a bit encouraging that the system rewards gains from the lowest categories more than at the upper end. It occurred to someone that maybe we should incentivize helping the lowest kids first (and the invisible hand of the marketplace will take care of the rest ). I also like the premise (if I’m interpreting it correctly) that if we focused more energy on actual reading comprehension than on test taking that we’d probably see an improvement in test scores anyway. That makes a lot of sense, since all the tests presume grade level reading comprehension, and even the math section is heavy on story problems.

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