By Joshua Benton
Sometimes it takes an outsider.
Something you’ve seen a thousand times may seem as normal as heat in a Texas summer – until someone new stops in and points out just how wrong it is.
That’s how I felt when I read an academic paper by Jennifer Booher-Jennings, a grad student at Columbia. She spent months observing how a Texas elementary school prepared for the TAKS test. (She promised not to reveal its identity in exchange for the access.)
Her paper didn’t tell me much I hadn’t seen repeatedly across the state. But I’d never really stopped to think through the damage well-meaning educators can cause in pursuit of a high passing rate and a good school rating.
Here’s how it worked at the school she watched. In the fall, teachers gave students a sample TAKS test. Based on the results, students were divided into three groups: passers at the top, remedial kids at the bottom and bubble kids in between.
The bubble kids are the ones whose scores put them just below the state’s passing standards. (That varies from grade to grade, but kids generally have to get 65 to 70 percent of questions right to pass the TAKS.) The bubble kids are the ones who, with a coordinated effort, can be pushed over the passing bar. And pushing kids over that bar is everything in Texas.
So how did the educators at this particular school react?
By pouring all the resources they could into the bubble kids.
The bubble kids get special sessions with the school’s reading specialist. The bubble kids get after-school and Saturday tutoring. The bubble kids get small-group attention in class. The bubble kids get extra reading time with librarians and the P.E. teacher.
All that’s great if you’re a bubble kid. That extra time and attention works – those kids usually end up passing TAKS.
But what if you’re one of the “remedial” kids – everyone below the bubble?
You get the shaft.
Teachers aren’t stupid. They realize they’re going to be judged on how many of their kids pass – not how much improvement they can squeeze out of their weakest kids. So they go after the low-hanging fruit: the bubble kids.
Here are some direct quotes from the teachers Ms. Booher-Jennings interviewed:
“I guess there’s supposed to be remediation for anything below [a TAKS score of] 55. But you have to figure out who to focus on in class, and I definitely focus more attention on the bubble kids.”
“If you look at her score [pointing at one student’s score], she’s got a 25 percent. What’s the point in trying to get her to grade level? It would take two years to get her to pass the test, so there’s really no hope for her.”
“If you have a kid who is getting a 22, even if they improve to a 40, they won’t be close. But if you have a kid with a 60, well, they’re in shooting range. … Some kids are always going to be left behind, especially in this district, when we have the emphasis on the bubble kids.”
As one teacher said of the remedial kids: “It’s really a lost cause. They must have fallen through the cracks somehow.”
These are third-graders we’re talking about. These kids are getting written off as hopeless cases before they turn 9.
Ms. Booher-Jennings only visited one school. But I’ve talked to dozens of teachers who do some version of the same practice.
Principals call it being “data-driven.” I call it an excuse to ignore the weak.
But it isn’t just the weakest students who lose in this system. Bright kids, the ones schools know are going to pass, don’t get much attention either. Neither do the special education kids whose scores don’t count against the school, or the kids who transfer into a school after October and aren’t counted for ratings either.
Here’s the criminal thing about focusing so much attention on the bubble kids: All it does is make the adults look better.
It makes teachers look better when their classroom’s passing rates are posted in the teacher’s lounge. It makes principals look better when they get called to a meeting in the central office.
It makes superintendents look better when test scores get published in the newspaper. And it makes legislators look good when the statewide passing rate marches up every year.
But does it help children when teachers are willing to pour hours into turning a 64 into a 71 – but consider moving a kid from a 31 to a 59 not worth the effort?
It’s the precise opposite of “no child left behind.”
I hope every TAKS-giving teacher reading this asks herself a simple question: Is there anything I do for bubble kids that I don’t do for weaker kids? And if the answer is yes: How can I justify that?
The final irony in Ms. Booher-Jennings’ paper comes from one constant among almost all of the teachers she interviewed. They always complained about their colleagues in earlier grades.
Those other teachers didn’t do enough to prepare these kids when they had them, the teachers argued. Now these hopeless cases are going to lower my passing rate.
Gee, I wonder how those kids on the bottom got there? Perhaps if they’d gotten the same attention the bubble kids had, their futures wouldn’t seem quite so hopeless.