Test-Score Accountability and School Climate: More Evidence

A new qualitative case study of a predominantly minority-enrolled, low-performing Texas high school highlights the potential adverse side affects on school climate and culture, and student college readiness, when improving student task scores takes center stage and becomes the focus of the school’s improvement efforts.

Educators at the school were attempting to establish a college-going culture, encouraging enrollment in AP courses and offering college advisement programs, when the state education agency classified the high school as failing. Teachers were pressured to improve scores within a year. Curricula were geared towards the basic skills of the test, and students were pushed into intervention programs focused on test taking.

In interviews and observations, researchers found that the school’s failing status resulted in students feeling “stigmatized” and “humiliated,” and in higher teacher turnover which denied students the consistent social support they need to become first-generation college students. In other words, the focus on standards and assessment designed to make students more prepared for the rigors of college was creating conditions that were undermining that goal.

Lead researcher Anjale Welton concludes that the study is proof that education reformers need to rethink how they apply stigmatizing penalties to struggling schools, especially those with high-poverty and minority student populations.

This is another lesson that test-centered school turnaround efforts that fail to make the creation of a supportive school climate and culture a central focus are likely to fall short and even create conditions that disconnect both students and staff from the school.

Part of school climate reform movement is shifting the mentality of adults at schools from a deficit model focused on fixing what’s wrong with kids to a strengths-based model focused on what supports adults can provide to ensure all kids succeed and on creating conditions that resilience research has found to mitigate the likelihood that youth will engage in problem behaviors and become disengaged from school.

Similarly, SEAs and LEAs need to avoid deficit approaches to school improvement and focus on what they can do to help schools create positive climates and address the larger socioeconomic challenges they face. This includes providing the school the supports and resources it needs to succeed rather than simply stigmatizing it as failing and holding it accountable for improving test scores. This is especially true for high-minority, high-poverty schools that are under-resourced and challenged by systemic inequities.

The study, “Accountability Strain, College Readiness Drain,” was published in the Winter 2015 issue of The High School Journal.

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