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.