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High Stakes Teaching: The Value-Added Sham

Sikivu Hutchinson: The value-added sham won’t help parents and communities of color struggling to achieve educational equity for youth who have already been intuitively assigned a jail cell by a public school culture marching in lockstep with the teach to the test ethos.

In one of the more ham-fistedly symbolic episodes of the 1960s Twilight Zone series, a Kafkaesque tribunal declares people to be “obsolete” based on their allegiance to outmoded cultural practices like literacy and critical thought. Operating in the same vein, the Los Angeles Times’ recent publication of the so-called “value-added” assessments of Los Angeles Unified elementary teachers was another “legitimizing” victory for the destructive regime of high stakes testing and a blow for outmoded practices like literacy and critical thought. Puppets in a virtual tribunal, LAUSD educators who have spent years creating classroom environments that challenge and engage students suddenly woke up one morning to find themselves stamped “ineffective” or “effective” based solely on their students’ standardized test scores.

teacher and student

Nationwide, many teachers oppose the value-added model on the grounds that it reduces teacher performance to one decidedly narrow, politically, and culturally suspect criterion. Test scores measure how well students can master the culturally prescribed knowledge assessed on standardized, norm-referenced tests, not their critical thinking skills.

The regime of No Child Left Behind (NCLB) has institutionalized the practice of teaching to the test, such that culturally responsive approaches to curriculum and instruction are few and far between. In addition to its gutlessness, the Times article was noteworthy for its egregious omissions—namely, its failure to provide an analysis of the concrete specific teaching methodologies that supposedly inform student testing gains.

By smearing an empathic, engaged and highly regarded teacher as “ineffective” because of her low test scores, the Times undercut its ostensible motive for this expose. Publishing the value-added results has been defended as a way to “empower” parents, yet the reductive criterion of success in high stakes testing tells us absolutely nothing about whether a teacher is critically conscious about how students’ differential access to power and privilege influences their learning outcomes.

It tells us nothing about whether a teacher has tailored her instruction to value and incorporate the cultural capital, lived experience and cultural knowledge that diverse students bring to the classroom.

Moreover, it tells us nothing about whether or not that teacher has organized her class to creatively affirm authentic student voices, develop her students as leaders and foster an environment in which cooperative non-hierarchical learning strategies are privileged over drill and kill intellectual taxidermy.

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Time and again studies from such organizations as Californian’s for Justice, Harvard Civil Rights Project, and UCLA’s Institute for Democracy have demonstrated the danger of relying upon standardized tests as the sole criteria for student achievement and teacher effectiveness. The strongest determinant of whether a teacher’s practice is effective is how well they develop culturally respectful relationships with students, create a caring yet rigorous atmosphere for critical inquiry and critical literacy, connect with students’ home cultures, and employ multiple teaching strategies such as instructional conversation, sparing use of lecture, extensive group work and creative and expository writing.

Yet, the Obama administration’s fetishistic emphasis on test scores as the major barometer of teacher effectiveness, a linchpin of its “Race to the Top” initiative, is especially insidious for students of color. For example, the disproportionate suspension of African American students is a national epidemic that has been exacerbated by the NCLB high stakes testing regime. Disengaged from school curricula in which they are not meaningfully reflected, African American students have become ensnared in a public school disciplinary apparatus that fuels the nation’s prison complex.

In some LAUSD schools the percentage of African American students who have been suspended is often two and three times greater than their percentage in the general student population. According to the 2001 Indiana University study “The Color of Discipline,” black students were disciplined more harshly than white and Latino students who committed similar infractions. Students who are repeatedly suspended are more likely to drop out, and are in turn more likely to be funneled into the prison pipeline.

A recent report by the Los Angeles-based Advancement Project concluded that the intersection of high stakes testing and zero tolerance discipline policies have created a perfect storm for black and brown students already deemed expendable by teachers and administrators. Wedded to the bottom line of generating better test and Academic Performance Index (API) scores, schools are increasingly motivated to move “problem” students along to alternative schools and GED programs.

Indeed, “zero tolerance and high stakes testing have followed the same path on the way to being…frequently substituted for real education reform.” The value-added sham won’t help parents and communities of color struggling to achieve educational equity for youth who have already been intuitively assigned a jail cell by a public school culture marching in lockstep with the teach to the test ethos.

sikivu hutchinson

Sikivu Hutchinson

Sikivu Hutchinson is the editor of and the author of the forthcoming Moral Combat: Black Atheists, Gender Politics and Secular America. She is a Senior Fellow with the Institute for Humanist Studies.