Imagine a public middle school—we’ll call it Hypothetical Middle. Like most public schools in our country, its student body is composed of mostly low-income students. Many are English language learners, and 70 percent receive free or reduced lunch. You check in at the office, pass through the metal detector, and admire the student work posted on bulletin boards in the hallway.
As you begin your tour, you’ll see some clearly dedicated teachers and a lot of engaged students. There’s a standardized test pep rally on Friday. Lots of classes are playing review games to get ready for the test. Every teacher is working to pump up the students for testing and make sure they’re prepared. Every classroom you enter is filled with standards-based talk. It sounds something like this: “Remember, how are we going to start our constructed responses?” “RESTATE THE QUESTION!”
Now we’ll take a trip across town to the private school, Our Lady of the Fictional Example. As soon as you arrive, the video production class is starting the school news show. It’s an elective class available to eighth graders, but don’t worry; sixth and seventh graders can get involved with the school newspaper. What’s that the English class is doing? Oh, they’re making iMovies showing the hero’s journey. Look! The physical science class is building earthquake-resistant structures with marshmallows and spaghetti noodles! And the social studies class is outside making maps of the school campus.
The “why” behind learning matters
Both these schools may offer high student engagement and energetic teaching. However, the focus is completely different. You see, Hypothetical Middle is working to bridge the education gap between its low-income students and their wealthier peers over at Our Lady of the Fictional Example. Their main measure for doing so is increasing standardized test scores (which the private school kids don’t have to take). Hypothetical Middle kids have deficits in reading and math, so those weaknesses have to be addressed. This leaves no time for experiential learning, exploring interests, and time-consuming hands-on projects.
Hypothetical Middle is a good school. Ninety percent of its students generally pass the state-mandated standardized tests. So the school earns awards and even gets extra funding for the work they’re doing. After all, their students learn a lot during their three years at the school. A lot about how to take a standardized test.
We hear a lot of well-meaning talk these days about bridging the education gap between low-income and middle-class or wealthy students. It’s a serious challenge for a variety of reasons. Low-income kids are less likely to attend high-quality preschool programs. They learn fewer words in early childhood than their middle class peers. They are more likely to experience trauma and less likely to attend college. And they often struggle academically (where our primary measure of academic achievement is standardized tests). If we can raise their test scores, we reason, we’ve raised their educational level to equal that of the kids over at Our Lady of the Fictional Example.
Tests don’t define achievement
The problem is, that’s not true. The schools with the highest standardized test scores do not necessarily provide the best education. More often, they provide the most test-centered education. While these kids are masters of bubbling in a Scantron, they may have never written a full-length essay. It’s entirely possible that their English classes include only four-paragraph test prep reading passages, rather than novels that provide a rich experience with literature. There’s a good chance if the scores are high, that art, music, and recess have been sacrificed to provide time for extra reading and math instruction.
Schools that work to bridge the education gap in testing use a variety of mathematical, data-based gymnastics to determine the most efficient ways to raise scores. They track kids in classes based on standardized test scores. They focus on deficits, which means that a kid who struggles with math spends her school day doing twice as much math as her peers. And they target the “bubble kids,” those whose test scores linger on the border between passing and failing. The kids who are either advanced enough to pass without much help or so behind that they don’t stand a chance are often neglected.
While the free lunch kids are doing test prep drill and attending summer school at Hypothetical Middle to boost their constructed response writing skills, their well-off peers have a completely different educational experience. Their schools offer more electives and a wider range of classes to cater to their interests. They have the opportunity to explore their strengths, rather than constantly focusing on their weaknesses.
And don’t forget that they also have resources outside of school. While low-income kids often head straight home after school, stopping only to pick up younger siblings from the babysitter’s house, wealthy kids can take private lessons, attend extracurricular activities, and enroll in camps for almost anything. STEM camp, Lego camp, creative writing camp, you name it, not to mention good ol’ sleep in a cabin and drink bug juice camp. Low-income kids, of course, are more likely to spend summers working or providing child care. They often spend most of the summer indoors in front of a screen since their neighborhoods may be unsafe.
We must change the rubric of success
It’s not possible to right all these wrongs and provide complete parity. All kids will never be equally intelligent, or have the same level of parental support, or have access to all the same resources. Our schools can, however, work to level the playing field. The only way to truly improve the achievement and quality of life for our low-income public school kids is to change the rubric by which we measure success. Instead of how well students answer multiple choice questions, we need to look at college acceptance rates. We need to assess the opportunities we provide for kids to explore and develop their passions, to struggle and experiment, to create products they’re proud of and to find solutions to problems that interest them.
Think back to what you learned as a teenager. Do you remember any word problems or any of the questions you answered at the end of the chapter? Probably not. If you’re anything like me, you probably remember learning to use geometry and algebra while building sets with the drama department. Or maybe you got your major sense of accomplishment when you broke your personal record for the 50-yard dash. Perhaps it was the amazing creative writing you produced at that summer program or the skit you and your classmates did about the city-states of ancient Greece.
This kind of hands-on learning is disappearing from our low-income kids’ lives to make room for more test prep. And don’t expect this trend to end anytime soon because it’s “working.”
In many schools, test scores are improving, and administrators, government officials, and the media are celebrating this evidence of “success.” Cutting recess in order to practice word problems boosted test scores? Great! Let’s cut art, too!
My students—all of whom receive free lunch—start testing today, and chances are they’ll do very well. Most, if not all of them, will at least pass, and many will exceed expectations. And we’ll celebrate the hell out of them, because they’ve put real work into overcoming their deficits and they absolutely deserve to be celebrated. But it’s not enough.
We’ve got the education gap all wrong
No middle class parent would be satisfied with an education that teaches a child only how to fill in bubbles and write a RACE paragraph: Restate, Answer, Cite, Explain. Those are not the skills we need in life. For our own children, we want the opportunity to struggle with complex ideas, expand their horizons, exercise their creativity. So why do we settle for increased test scores for low-income kids and call it a victory?
We may be bridging the education gap between low-income and middle-class students, but we’ve chosen the wrong education gap. Rather than the disparity in standardized test scores, we need to examine the chasm that exists in the quality of learning experiences for low-income children.