Once again, Richmond Teachers for Social Justice is appalled, embarrassed, and disappointed, but not shocked to see the VDOE’s report of George Washington Carver Elementary School’s SOL testing. We echo School Board members Kenya Gibson and Scott Barlow when they say the students were of no fault; this incident is a product of the accountability regime – an unfortunate outcome we have seen multiple times before and will continue to see until leaders recognize that high-stakes tests are not the solution to achievement disparities.
Can all of this really be pinned on teachers, though? Nationwide, educational policy has increasingly elevated the role of standardized tests as a way to measure learning. Our superintendent has a history of using student achievement data to incentivize pay increases, an approach that presumes low student achievement is a result of low motivation on the part of teachers. However, mounting research suggests that teacher motivation and quality are not the primary drivers of low student achievement. Regardless of the ways in which teachers matter in the lives of their students and in the communities in which they teach, if test scores aren’t high, then none of this will matter. The real problem here is the unrelenting emphasis on high stakes standardized testing.
Campbell’s Law says that the more any quantitative measure is used to impact decision making, the more likely it is to corrupt the very thing it is intended to measure. Diane Ravitch, educational policy expert, says in her blog post, “[a]s high-stakes testing has become the main driver of our nation’s education policy, we will see more cheating, more narrowing of the curriculum, more gaming of the system. None of this produces better education. And even the test scores–on which so much public policy now firmly rests–will be corrupted, by making them so important.” As RPS School Board Member Kenya Gibson says, “[h]ow many more headlines about cheating scandals must happen before we acknowledge that fear-based accountability systems don’t work? We’ve got to rethink what education reform looks like because these high-stakes tests have failed.”
We support superintendent Kamras when he implies this investigation was started to confirm biases deeply rooted in our society. We cannot pretend that race and class are not issues that significantly impact learning opportunities. However, the way we assess students through standardized testing and other narrow measures are colorblind and fail to acknowledge the many factors that students and schools must confront in order to be successful. Teachers and administrators at Carver Elementary were out of line and their actions are inexcusable; but when leaders show a sudden moral outrage over cheating, we should challenge them to reflect on how they can continue to give a pass to the horrid injustices happening on a daily basis in our city is irresponsible.
To close, moral policy making should make it easier for people to act well – it is clear to us that a focus on testing does the opposite. Our school board members, superintendent and RPS cabinet members, Mayor Stoney and his team, school parents, principals, and even us teachers, must focus on prioritizing the relationships that our schools and communities need to thrive. RTSJ challenges everyone to fully commit to and find ways to confront systemic issues facing our city and our schools. We need policies that prioritize teachers to allow them to fully participate in these efforts rather than evaluation schemes that reduce teaching to test preparation, learning to high test scores, and that lead to a narrowing of how schools can matter to the communities they serve.