Step 1: Create a standardized reading comprehension test, which most native speakers easily pass.
Step 2: Make this test a high-school graduation requirement.
Step 3: Withhold diplomas from students who fail to pass the test.
In Massachusetts, we call this test the MCAS (Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System). It has created an economic, social and political underclass that will haunt us for generations. And thanks to the Obama administration's Race to the Top agenda, it's about to go national.
Consider a barely-fictional student, Maria. I have met many Marias during my time as a teacher in a gateway city and now as an Upward Bound director in the same community. Maria attends an urban public school district. She immigrated legally to the United States when she was 13. She lives with her mother, who desperately wants her to go to college. In four years, she has become nearly-fluent in English. She maintains a 3.0 GPA. Yet she repeatedly fails the MCAS and struggles with the idioms and other language quirks found in the reading comprehension passages. Her SAT scores are dismally low. Now in her senior year, she is considering giving up on her dream of a college education, not knowing if she will even be able to attend without the necessary numbers. Suddenly, a two- or four-year school seems impossible despite four years of working tirelessly to learn a new language.
And it doesn't stop there. Maria is, statistically-speaking, condemned to a life of low-wage, non-benefited jobs once she fails to get her diploma on time -- in her case, only because of a test score. She will not graduate not because of attendance nor grades but because of one test. When I was a teacher, I proctored many of these standardized tests, which disrupted the entire school schedule. I seethed at the thought of so much wasted learning time. I fumed when a re-test included a scene from a play in which a WASP tries to convince his parents to let him pursue a doctorate in Victorian poetry. I had taught my students Life of Pi and complex sentence structures and literary criticism, but I had not taught them to be bougie.
In 2012, 88 percent of Massachusetts high school students scored proficient or advanced on our state reading assessment. I can tell you from experience what happens to the 12 percent who don't pass the test. They languish. They worry about being able to graduate. They worry about supporting their families. And many of them, after taking and re-taking and re-re-taking the test, will simply give up.
Additionally, former Governor Romney decided to link MCAS scores to free tuition at in-state public colleges via the John and Abigail Adams Scholarship program. The scholarship does not consider GPA, nor extracurriculars, nor community service -- merely the test. So, many of those low-income students who could benefit the most are shut out despite meeting other admissions requirements. And the college education gap grows.
I'm not suggesting that the engineers of the current testing policies had some malicious intent from the onset. I know the intent: by enacting standards, we encourage teachers to teach better. When I taught Advanced Placement English Language and Composition, I enjoyed the pressure that the exam provided -- it focused my instruction.
And testing data can help drive responsible decisions. When a school fails repeatedly to improve on a test, a state or district can step in to correct the course. Without test scores, these school turnaround plans would be more subjective and even more controversial than they already are.
Yet in reality, these tests exacerbate the achievement gap by creating barriers that disproportionately impact low-income students and recent immigrants. At the end of my first year of suburban teaching, I opened my MCAS scores and saw only proficient and advanced results. I realized how much harder I had worked in an urban district only to achieve, in the eyes of the Commonwealth, far weaker results. I realized that these American-born, middle-to-upper income students were probably going to pass the minute they walked through the door. They had a lifetime of accumulated advantage before they ever knew me.
I'm not suggesting that test scores aren't important, or that we shouldn't use them at all. Students should be able to demonstrate improvement on tests that are well-designed. But to make standardized tests the be-all and end-all is destructive in a way that most people who don't work in low-income districts fail to understand. These tests are soul-crushing to our neediest youth while the most affluent brush them off as a minor annoyance.
We aren't far away from a national test and a national curriculum. I hope that we stop to think about the Marias, the students who work hard in underperforming districts, who struggle to master English, who make good grades, and who are rewarded only with a door slammed shut.