The Last Frontier

The Last Frontier

“If I don’t pass the test, it will make you look bad.” The words stung me deeply as they left the mouth of my former 6th grade student. The dreaded state-testing window was quickly approaching, and I wanted my students to perform well. I was hurt. I had what I considered a very good relationship with the student. She gave me hugs daily. She often asked to miss her other classes to spend more time in my room. She consistently told me I was her favorite teacher. And then she said this.

I was upset by her words because I felt I had done so much to set high expectations for all my students, and to build up their confidence in their ability to perform well on the Georgia Criterion Reference Competency Test in Social Studies. I had taught the students everything they needed to know to perform well on the test. I spent countless hours making my own classroom resources because the materials provided by the district did not align to the standards tested. I tutored daily, contacted parents regularly, and covered every concept at least 7 times. I couldn’t think of anything else I could have done to better prepare my students.

However, my student’s comment drove home the point that her test performance would have no effect on her academic career. The test score she received would not determine retention, class placement, or even the method of instructing the student. Moreover, the test scores were received so late in the school year that I could not go back and cover with her areas in which she might have struggled. In her following school year, the social studies curriculum would cover completely different content.

The test score she received would not allow her to compare herself to other students in the state, and definitely not the country, to determine where she ranked. Students were aware that only two subjects “mattered” in determining AYP, and I did not teach a subject which “mattered.” Even if I had taught Math or Reading that year, statistics show that even though the state has declared that students must pass standardized tests to progress to the next grade level, very few students are actually retained. She was right.

Although the test had little meaning to her, it was important to me. I see school accountability as a triangle. School staff members are on one side of the triangle; parents and community members are on the other side. Students should be the base of the triangle, but all sides should be part of increasing student achievement.

No Child Left Behind made schools and school systems accountable for student achievement across demographic groups. Schools can be reconstituted, and whole staffs fired for student achievement scores. Race to the Top and organizations like Students First are responsible for much of the movement to hold teachers accountable for student achievement. New teacher evaluations often must contain student achievement scores in determining teacher effectiveness. Principal evaluations now often have components that consider student achievement.

Parents are also responsible. Many states and municipalities have statutes that punish parents with fines and jail time if their children have poor school attendance. Recently, there has even been controversy surrounding the debate in the Tennessee legislature to tie TANF (Temporary Assistance to Needy Families) benefits to students’ satisfactory progress in school. However, there is one more frontier in the accountability movement: student accountability.

Student motivation and engagement are important factors that are not often discussed when the topic of student achievement is addressed. I personally have witnessed highly motivated students overcome great obstacles, such as speaking a low-occurrence foreign language with no instruction in their native language. These students went on to score at the highest level on state tests. I have also seen many students who receive many academic interventions, such as smaller core classes, academic support classes, and academic coaching, who have failed to make much progress.

What often separates students in the two categories is not innate academic ability, but their motivation and ability to take personal responsibility in their academic achievement. At some point, students have to “buy in” to testing. Any testing program that does not present students with benefits, incentives, and/or consequences does not hold students accountable.

Education reformers, policymakers, educators, AND students have one last frontier to explore in the education accountability movement, and that frontier is learning how to improve a student’s own self-accountability and accountability to shared learning goals.

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