How High-Stakes Testing Strangles Motivation and Competition

July 31, 2013

Homer strangles Bart (again), The Simpsons, February 2011. (

Homer strangling Bart (again), The Simpsons, February 2011. (

One of the biggest casualties in the current K-12 education reform effort — otherwise known as measuring teacher effectiveness through high-stakes testing — is the notion of competition, academic and otherwise. At least, students competing to make themselves better students, better athletes and even better people in the process of matriculating through elementary, middle and high school. Competition suffers when the teaching, motivational, psychological and financial resources necessary to level the K-12 playing field have gone instead to testing companies and psychometricians.

So much has been the emphasis on testing and raising test scores that most in education reform now think competition among students on the K-12 stage is an abomination that must be rooted out, and not part and parcel of the learning and human development process. This is really too bad. For what often makes school fun for children is a healthy dose of competition throughout the process.

To use myself and my ten-year-old son as but two examples of what has occurred in K-12 education reform over the past three and a half decades, it is apparent to most educators how much has changed as a result of the fear of competition and lack of autonomy to motivate students. Testing, of course, was part of my educational experience growing up. From third grade through sixth grade in Mount Vernon, New York’s public schools, the school district tested us with the SRA (Science Research Associates, Inc.) exam in reading comprehension and mathematics every spring. At the end of the school year, we’d learn how well or not so well we tested in these areas in terms of grade level.

Data mining (one of the hallmarks of reduced teacher autonomy), cropped and edited, September 2006. (

Data mining (one of the hallmarks of reduced teacher autonomy), cropped and edited, September 2006. (

The Mount Vernon Board of Education used the test for two purposes. One, it was a diagnostic exam, as it would show students with reading and math comprehension skills at, above or below grade level. When I took the SRA in third grade, for example, I read at the 3.9 grade level, or on par as a third marking period third-grader. When I took the fourth grade version of the SRA the following year, I had jumped up to a 7.4 in reading, or the equivalent of a mid-year seventh-grader.

The district used the SRA for a second purpose, though, at least by the end of sixth grade. It was part of a package that determined what academic track a student would take as they moved on to middle school. In my case, my straight A’s and my SRA scores (which put me at the 12th grade level in reading comprehension and 11th grade level in math) put me in the gifted-track magnet program called Humanities in 1981. For some of my elementary school classmates, it meant general education classes, or, in a couple of cases, remedial or special education classes.

Ability tracking through an examination and grades over four years has its own sinister flaws in terms of race and class — it has tended to disadvantage Black students, especially poor Black kids. But it at least wasn’t the constant mantra of testing that millions like my ten-year-old son has faced since he began kindergarten in August 2008. For nearly every year, my son has taken a school-level, county-district level, or state-level exam in Montgomery County (Maryland) Public Schools, including MAP-M and MAP-R, TerraNova and the MSA assessments. What’s more, teachers have administered practice versions of these exams (including unit guides and what they call formatives) about once every six weeks during the school year since my son began second grade.

The constant testing would be meaningful if teachers could get together and decide at the classroom level how best to address students’ needs in areas like reading comprehension and mathematics. These determinations now are tightly controlled at the state, district and school leadership levels, leaving teachers with little room to use their abilities to, well, teach. Really, motivating students — the most critical tool a teacher has in challenging students to become better learners — has become a secondary tool. Especially since these test scores only count in favor or against individual teachers and individual schools, and not specifically for or against students.

Robot teaching math 3d illustration, July 31, 2013. (

Robot teaching math 3d illustration, July 31, 2013. (

The last piece is a good thing. Most educators now agree that ability grouping or tracking has fostered too much competition for a school district’s resources among students, teachers, administrators and parents. K-12 education reform has leaned so far the other way, though, that teachers have virtually no say in the curriculum from which they teach, even in kindergarten, and have little from which to motivate their students as learners. In fact, teachers and school-level administrators are the only ones with some motivation and sense of competition, as dollars and jobs are at stake every spring as a result of annual testing. This motivation, though, is all about teaching students how to get better test scores, and not about actual learning, development or academic improvement, a poor way to reform K-12 education.

And it is the motivation to learn that sparks the competition necessary for students to improve themselves, to work with each other to become better students. Another student’s success can even encourage other students to work harder, to make themselves better academically, athletically or even socially. In the current K-12-as-laboratory-experiment-environment, this theme of motivation and healthy competition leading to student success is not only missing. For reformers, it’s been deliberately omitted, as if poor kids and students of color in urban environments don’t need motivation and competition to become better students and people.

Road to My Memoir, Part 2: Multiculturalism

June 8, 2013

When I wrote about this long path to Boy @ The Window last month, I figured that it would take three posts in all to discuss the path. But the road’s shown itself to be longer — and more convoluted — than I anticipated.

So I never did write my book about being on welfare, dehumanization and welfare policy. I found a much more interesting subject to take up the following year, in the summer of ’90. I decided to take the late Barbara Sizemore’s research methods course in Black Studies that fall, to move beyond my history courses, as I’d already taken enough of them to have fulfilled my major.

I wanted to look at the re-segregation of desegregated schools through tracking or ability grouping, specifically in Mount Vernon’s public schools. The book that brought me to this topic was Jeannie Oakes’ masterpiece Keeping Track: How School Structure Inequality (1985). It had begun to turn my mind away from slavery as a long-term history project (perhaps one I would’ve pursued in doing my master’s papers or doctoral research) and toward history of education and racial inequality.

Oakes’ main argument was that school desegregation was a mixed bag of success and failure precisely because of the fact that with tracking by academic “ability,”disadvantaged Black students and advantaged White students would seldom meet in the same classrooms. That made me think of my still recent experiences with the Humanities Program in middle school and high school. After all, a school district that was three-quarters Black, Afro-Caribbean and Hispanic had a magnet program that was about sixty percent White during my six years in Humanities.

I spent that summer — when I wasn’t working — at Mount Vernon Public Library, NYU’s Bobst Library, and New York Public Library giving myself a stronger background on this topic. I met with the former MVHS Humanities coordinator Joyce Flanagan (who had become Harrington by then) about getting more specific demographic data about the program by class year and school (Pennington-Grimes ES, A.B. Davis Middle School and MVHS). Much of the data had already been destroyed, Harrington confided. The data she did give me, while informative, wasn’t enough to do even a watered down version of what Oakes did for Keeping Track (she interviewed 14,000 students and teachers in all).

I ended up doing my research project on Pittsburgh Public Schools and their International Baccalaureate programs at Schenley and Allderdice HS. It was a solid paper, an easy A compared to my comparative slavery paper for Drescher’s graduate course the semester before. But it wasn’t enough for me.

In the course of building up my knowledge on segregation, suburban schools, urban school districts, and community control, I stumbled onto books about multicultural education. I wanted to learn more, so I took a sociology course my final undergraduate semester on the sociology of race and ethnicity (there weren’t any education courses that focused on either race or multiculturalism at Pitt in ’91).

The turning point came with my friend Elaine, who knew of my interest in the topic. She was the one who had informed me of a growing controversy with New York State’s newly proposed history curriculum, one in which the ideas of multicultural education had played a key role. That work the summer before grad school, that work to understand why there was any controversy at all, led me to finding out more about cultural pluralism and its history. This then led to the role of Black intellectuals and educators in applying cultural pluralism, the differences between multiculturalism, multicultural education and Afrocentricity.

I had my dissertation topic in broad strokes before I’d taken any courses as a master’s student (not counting the comparative slavery class). But in the process of moving from re-segregation and Jeannie Oakes to multiculturalism, I’d moved from a wide-eyed student of everything that related to my life at age twenty to an aspiring academician, a historian of educational and cultural ideas.

I’d taken the first steps to bury myself in academic writing and thinking, without fully understanding why I cared about multiculturalism in the first place. It took me a decade to figure out that the lack of understanding of diversity in Humanities was part of what made it a bittersweet experience for me, an experience that drove me toward multiculturalism as a research topic. It took ten years before I realized that my pursuit of multiculturalism in Black Washington, DC was my way of dealing with my own past without any emotion. Multiculturalism took me further away from the writer (and historian) I wanted to be, even as I earned my doctorate on the topic.

Cream on the Brain

December 12, 2010

A Brain Floating in the Heavy Cream of Obsession with Academic Excellence, December 13, 2010. Donald Earl Collins

A quarter-century ago, education scholar and Ford Foundation education program director Jeanne Oakes published Keeping Track: How Schools Structure Inequality. Oakes’ groundbreaking, definitive work on the educational inequalities created or reinforced by ability grouping has led a whole generation of scholars to examine the viability of tracking in K-12 education. In a 2005 edition of her book, Oakes wrote that “through tracking, schools continue to replicate existing inequality along lines of race and social class and contribute to the intergenerational transmission of social and economic inequality.”

I picked up Oakes’ Keeping Track for the first time in ’90. By then, I already knew from experience how true her words and research were. Six years in Mount Vernon, New York’s public schools via the Humanities Program had taught me all I’d need to know about the tensions between creating a class of students whose level of academic performance was par excellence while simultaneously addressing segregation and diversity in the school district. The magnet program and the district failed at one and succeeded at the other, which in turn reinforced its failure.

I worked on a paper some twenty years ago for the late Barbara Sizemore, my professor at the University of Pittsburgh my senior year (and a former superintendent of DC Public Schools) looking at how magnet school programs actually created resegregation in individual schools and Pittsburgh Public Schools because of the exclusivity that comes with tracking or ability grouping. It was an easy paper for me to do, guided in no small part by my experiences in Humanities at Davis Middle and Mount Vernon High School. Easy, but not easy to get a handle on beyond the obvious demographics of race, class and test scores.

I managed to wiggle myself into the culture wars of the early ’90s and the debate around multiculturalism and K-12 education soon after that paper. It seems obvious now that the unacknowledged diversity of Humanities was what enabled me to takes sides in favor of multiculturalism. That led to my dissertation looking at the historical development of multiculturalism among Blacks in Washington, DC (“A Substance of Things Hoped For,” Carnegie Mellon University, 1997 for those who want more information), and eventually, my first book, Fear of a “Black” America from six years ago.

But it took my memoir Boy @ The Window to bring me back to square one. I realized about a year ago that I’d done nearly thirty interviews of former classmates, teachers and administrators for the manuscript. There was much more material to mine beyond their impressions of me and how to shape their descriptions of themselves — and my memories of them — into characters for Boy @ The Window. I decided to work on an academic piece that looked at the benefits and pitfalls of high-stakes schooling — not just testing — in the form of a history lesson via magnet schools, specifically my Humanities experience.

After a quick rejection, I redoubled my efforts a few months ago. I decided to look at the education psychology and sociology literature, as well as Oakes again, to see how these interviews and my experiences could be useful in our testing-obsessed times. I finally realized what had troubled me about Humanities for the past three decades. It was the reality that all involved with Humanities had taken on the e pluribus unum identity of an academic superstar (much more than just a nerd, by the way). Beyond Black or White, and ignoring the realities of poverty in our district and (at least for me) in our program, Humanities was all about sharpening our academic personas above all else.

This fueled the major success of Humanities during its existence between ’76 and ’93, which in turn would define its failures. In successfully nurturing the idea of academic excellence as identity, as evidenced by so many of us attending and graduating from college, this magnet program failed in its other major educational functions. It failed to embrace diversity, to help its students understand the diversity that was Humanities, to nurture creativity and imagination beyond A’s and college acceptances. It failed to develop the whole student, which aside from its charge to help desegregate Mount Vernon public schools, was its original mission.

Humanities failed because its teachers, administrators (including the former superintendent of schools) and many of the most vocal parents (mostly affluent and White) refused to deal with diversity seriously. Academic excellence without significant parental engagement or the humility necessary to discuss issues of race, gender, class, sexual orientation led to a severe overemphasis on calling us the “creme de la creme.” All of this would have a negative impact on our development as students, and as emerging adults.

I don’t think that it’s asking too much of parents, administrators and teachers to work together in both striving for academic excellence while building programs that embrace difference and nurture creativity and imagination, and not just an addiction to A’s. Or is it?


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