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Missing the Grade: Making Educators "Accountable" May Not Make Utah Schools Better

As the school day ends, Shauna Donaldson is reading aloud to her 22 third-graders at West Jordan Elementary School. The protagonist of the story she reads tries to spell C-A-T-A-S-T-R-O-P-H-E on a fictional blackboard. The bell rings and Donaldson closes her book, giving her students a high-five on their way out the door.

Donaldson is one of thousands in an education system trying to manage a growing population and wade through a maze of state and federal legislation. She is one of thousands who knows the ways in which Utah’s schools may slowly, but surely, be spelling out catastrophe.

As was evident in Utah’s last gubernatorial election, our education system has its share of flaws. In fact, few remain naïve enough to ask, “What flaws?” in a state with an almost official motto of “stack ’em deep, teach ’em cheap.” Utah has for years been at or near the bottom with its teacher-per-pupil ratio and the amount of money allocated per pupil. Public-education defenders have often touted that, all in all, Utah kids’ test scores remain high. But when a starting teacher’s salary is low enough to qualify them for the reduced-fee or even free lunch programs the state provides for low-income students, we can’t be altogether proud.

These well-publicized issues aside, few are aware of the solutions our Legislature has implemented to “raise the bar.” There is an overwhelming trend toward accountability in our schools. Accountability is a word that echoes No Child Left Behind (NCLB), the federal law implemented by President Bush in 2002 requiring that a certain portion of students in every U.S. school pass an annual test, or the school risks loss of funding.

Utah has its own accountability standards as well, including Utah Performance Assessment System for Students (UPASS), a program in the making since 1999 that rates schools on a pass-fail scale through a variety of possible mechanisms. One of those is the Utah Basic Skills and Comprehension Test (UBSCT). Utah’s high school class of 2006 must pass this test before earning a so-called “basic” high school diploma.

Then there’s the latest of the accountability measures, Performance Plus. This isn’t an energy boosting shake, but a work-in-progress, currently passed by the Legislature as “a working draft” that plans for “competency-based” funding and sanctions for schools with poorer test scores.

But accountability is only one school of thought on improving education, and it’s a controversial one. Many educators feel it adds unhealthy pressure to the teaching process, placing schools that don’t have enough passing students in too negative a light. They also believe it hurts where it should help. Few would argue that holding schools responsible is a bad idea, but several educators see formal accountability legislation as politically motivated, as well as unnecessary. Any teacher will tell you they’re already held accountable—to parents and pupils. But as education reform based on accountability continues its breathtaking pace, some educators feel many parents and pupils remain oblivious to the impact of these new reforms in the schools.

Those reforms won’t go unnoticed for long, however. “Accountability” mandates mean more and more measures of “accountability,” which means more students tested every year, along with overwhelmed teachers. These tests take away class time, and teachers feel pressure to prepare their students to take them. That, in turn, affects how the classroom functions.

Back at her third-grade classroom, Donaldson feels the requirements of No Child Left Behind, even apart from the Utah accountability system, have added strain. “It is stressful. You hope that people don’t lose sight of what education is about, but we do feel a little stressed to get everything done we’re asked to do, and they’ve asked us to get rid of the fluff—all the little extras that make coming to school interesting,” she said. “There is sometimes too much fluff, but you have to have some fluff to make the day seem palatable.”

There is little time for any lighter learning when each year students are asked to take the NCLB’s Criterion Referenced Tests, the UBSCT, the Iowa Tests (given every other year) and, for high schoolers, the SATs. Tests take not only time, but fiscal resources. For some, there is little question that we are testing kids too much.

Assistant Superintendent of Salt Lake City School District Charles Hausman said that accountability legislation has several sources of pressure. “You’ve got NCLB at the federal level, you’ve got UPASS as this larger umbrella at the state level. Performance Plus is also a piece of accountability legislation, and [these accountability measures] are not always consistent with one another. So there are a lot of things to respond to in the system. As a state and as a district that raises all kinds of issues about the capacity to actually do that,” he said.

It’s clear the system is being inundated, and few actually working in classrooms seem to be supporting this drive for accountability. So what’s the appeal?

Well, it sounds good. It guarantees a specific standard in our children’s learning levels. In other words, accountability testing defines exactly what the mind of a second-grader, fifth-grader or eighth-grader should contain.

Donaldson, a teacher for 18 years, explains that, “on paper, it’s a great idea. It’s a really great idea. It streamlines things. But there are so many other ramifications in children’s learning. There are so many variables in how a child learns: the kind of support system that they have at home, their abilities. That’s the problem,” she said. “It would be nice if we could put them all in a little box, but that’s just not reality.”

When kids are asked to pass these tests, there is little accounting in the system for the individual child, and while it sounds good to politicians and businessmen to produce a uniform product, teachers are finding themselves under the auspicious glare of a Big Brother system, begging for standardization.

Donaldson knows the strengths and weaknesses of her student’s individual third-grade minds. The encroaching system of accountability frustrates her. “They really ought to have educators involved in the decisions. Wouldn’t that make sense?” she asks. “I think they ought to come to the professionals and really listen to what the professionals are saying, not just businesspeople. You just don’t produce educated kids in an assembly line, like a business does. There are so many individual needs.”

Hausman agrees that these tests, designed as assessment tools for teachers, don’t quite tell the entire story. He asks the critical question: “Do you want to judge whether someone is competent or not after a year’s worth of work, based on a 45-minute test of multiple-choice items? I don’t think so.”

Especially when these test results determine whether schools receive funding, perhaps not.

“We’re taking data as if it’s so precise, making these judgments, and sanctioning schools [based on that data],” Hausman said. “That’s not what they were designed for.”

Like most education reform, while this schedule of accountability tests taxes teachers, it impacts students the most.

Consider, for example, the UBSCT that high school sophomores across the state took for the first time last spring. This graduating class will have a total of five chances to pass the test’s three sections of reading, writing and math in order to earn a “basic” high school diploma. There’s little argument that a high school diploma should mean something, and we might as well define the diploma’s requirements specifically. But some wonder about that standard of requirement when approximately 40 percent of students statewide failed one or more of the test’s sections. This huge population of students has a few more chances before graduation to pass the UBSCT, but it’s a shocking figure nonetheless.

One of the reasons behind that 40 percent failure rate was simple unfamiliarity with the test. Teachers and students alike weren’t ready for UBSCT. West High School student Travis Galvez feels he failed the math section because he never took a geometry class. “I just think the school needs to make sure they have the right math for the UBSCT,” he said.

This might not happen if teachers had access to the test material before the test. They don’t, and can’t prepare their students—another gripe educators are trying to express to the State Office of Education.

Hopefully, in the subsequent attempts the class of 2006 gets this year, more will pass. If not, they won’t receive a “basic” high school diploma, but instead receive a diploma marked “alternative.” No one knows for certain what the implications of issuing two different diplomas will be.

Hausman is worried. “If you’re an admissions person in higher education, or you’re an employer, are you going to value the basic high school diploma and the alternative diploma differently? I would think yes.”

But is this difference big enough to stifle career opportunities for a population of students? Hausman’s not certain.

Other educators worry not about the alternative diploma but the discouragement that comes from failing a test multiple times, and a possible increase in dropout rates once kids realize they may not earn the “basic” diploma. In response to that worry, educators have begun several intervention programs, and have hired coaches to help these kids through. It may not be enough. The coaching sessions are optional, and several kids that have failed portions of the UBSCT don’t bother coming for extra help.

We’ll know more about how this experiment in education will fare come 2006. What’s clear now is that the prognostics for some groups of students are better than others. The same UBSCT is given to all students, including the 38 percent of Salt Lake City School District students classified as “English Language Learners” or ELL. After one year in the United States, away from their native tongue, students must take this test without aid of translation. Some ELL students include those not even educated in their native country.

Take Monday Bongomin, a junior at West High School who arrived in Utah three years ago from Uganda. Wearing baggy pants and headphones around his neck like many other students, he speaks beautiful English in conversation. But the UBSCT has proved challenging for him. After studying all summer and fall this year, he took the test for the second time and awaits notice if he passed. If he fails one of the three sections, however, he’s not hopeful about studying any more. “If I didn’t pass it, I’m going to drop out,” he said, nodding his head.

Monday isn’t the only student who feels this way. That worries Kathy Lambert, a UBSCT math coach for the Salt Lake District. She sees a diverse population of kids trying hard to pass the test. They come to her tutoring sessions, and still struggle. Even after a summer’s worth of practice, passing the UBSCT may still be out of reach for these kids. Lambert is quite sure several of the students she has worked with this year will not pass the test again this fall. That’s when she worries they will start growing discouraged.

“I think they’ll feel stupid, and I really worry about how many will just drop out,” Lambert said. “What do you do if you’re not in school when you’re 16?”

It’s a fair question, and one we might ask with particular regard to the growing diversity in Salt Lake City. Hausman agrees we do ourselves no favors by not allowing the UBSCT to be translated. “I think we go too far when we put barriers in our system that are perhaps unrealistic for kids to achieve; that will lead to things like higher dropout rates.”

Lack of provisions for this growing group of immigrant students casts light on other obstacles immigrants face. It begs a serious question: Are we, in fact, unwittingly creating a new emerging underclass, a group of students our public education system is destined to fail? Alarmist as that may sound, it’s a question many teachers hope our Legislature will consider when implementing accountability reforms with consequences for schools with high numbers of immigrant youth.

Lambert works daily with such students. “What bothers me most is having sanctions against us when we don’t make it. They need to support us, not penalize us, when we try to help these kids. We’re letting them into our country, and we need to do something besides make them want to drop out of school,” she said.

Looking at the Salt Lake City School District’s UBSCT results from the spring of this year, the test-score disparity between English Language Learners and native speakers is evident. Failure rates of the various sections of the UBSCT also are substantially higher among Hispanic and African-American students and students receiving free and reduced-cost school lunches. Several social factors undoubtedly interact to contribute to these scoring gaps, but the disparity also calls into question whether there exists some bias in test questions. In the case of the UBSCT, the state took trouble to appoint a Bias Review Committee composed of educators responsible for detecting test questions that may be racially or culturally biased. But that didn’t prevent a question about the Pony Express from appearing on last year’s test. Lambert suspects most every immigrant student found themselves baffled.

“These kids haven’t a clue what the Pony Express is, or the history of that,” she said. “They were at a huge disadvantage for that question.”

Hausman agrees that a Bias Review Committee might not be the most effective way to ensure fairness. “It’s hard to see biases sometimes. We have our own world views,” he said. We need, in short, to make sure we are testing what these kids know, and not who they are or where they are from.

According to the latest U.S. Census, minority and immigrant children are our future. In fact, according to Census figures, minorities make up 92 percent of Salt Lake County’s population increase between 2000 and 2003. By cutting resources from schools in less-affluent neighborhoods with greater populations of single-parent homes, or households with less English proficiency, the accountability craze has the potential to widen an already existing gap between the white and the brown, the rich and the poor.

With so many other reforms and issues on their plate, not many lawmakers discuss the details of UBSCT or its potentially detrimental effects to various student populations. Rep. Carol Spackman Moss (D-Holladay), already generally opposed to accountability legislation, was previously unaware of the class of 2006’s staggering UBSCT failure rate. She reacted with concern.

“We can’t have a huge group of people stuck in minimum-wage jobs forever,” she said. “We’re all going to be the losers there.”

Rep. Margaret Dayton (R-Orem) has a different view. “It doesn’t do any ELL student any favor to let them graduate without an understanding of the language,” she said.

Educators, however, point out that currently there are no viable options for ELL students who fail UBSCT to attain a level of English proficiency necessary to pass the test. Instead, they’ll receive “alternative” diplomas and go out into the world with a possible disadvantage for work and higher-education opportunities.

Testing statistics indicate this could happen at an alarming rate. Interpreting disaggregated scores—scores segregated by indicators of poverty, race, English proficiency—has always been a risky business, but it can serve a purpose of raising awareness or pointing toward areas of concern. Hausman sees the approach as beneficial, but still insufficient.

“Reporting disaggregated data provides a healthy source of pressure. It calls attention to just how large those gaps are,” he said. “Awareness is necessary, but it’s not enough. When you’re aware of the gaps there are still tremendous challenges to reducing those.”

Rep. Dayton couldn’t agree less. She’s frustrated by attempts to separate population groups in data analysis. “I think the goal should be to educate everyone sufficiently and allow each child to reach his potential, not to close the achievement gap nor delineate subgroups,” she said.

This disagreement reflects a general polarization in perspective. It’s also rife with political meaning, as are most discussions about public education. Political hoopla might also explain a recent fuss in the Legislature over bias in one UBSCT question concerning something other than the Pony Express. Legislators heard that one question was allegedly biased against a “Sierra Club mentality.”

“[The concern was] you’d answer it wrong if you had more environmental views,” according to Rep. Spackman Moss.

As accountability legislation gets its feet off the ground, educators seem agreed we must find a way to educate all student populations, especially given the changing face of Utah. But, with few exceptions, educators aren’t lawmakers. One of those exceptions is Spackman Moss, a former high school teacher whose interest in politics grew out of her frustration with government education policies. She thought she could add an educator’s perspective to the legislative process.

©I thought I could say these things, and they’ll understand. But they don’t. They don’t want to hear that. They want to hear there are better ways to teach,” she said. Her frustration is with the Republican majority rule and its tendencies toward “accountability” in education. But this is somewhat ironic considering that many Republicans seek to back out of the federal No Child Left Behind. Bipartisan dislike for NCLB aside, Democrats hesitate to forfeit the plan when the Department of Education has indicated we would consequently be “opting out” of $107 million in federal funding. NCLB has its problems, and has been criticized nationwide as underfunded, but Utah educators have a hard time deciphering between federal pressure from one side and state pressure from another.

For the Republican majority, the difference is about control. And that control should be local. “I don’t think our local schools should be guided by, nor held accountable to, bureaucrats in D.C.,” Dayton said.

But others worry about the subsequent loss in funding if NCLB is left behind. For Lambert, the problem lies in the confusion between which pressures originate from NCLB, and which come from a state level. “If we opt out, we are going to lose a huge chunk of money, and I think that’s really frightening, because it’s providing kids a lot of stuff. I think they [educators] need to realize that the rest of the testing is being done by our state, that it’s not No Child Left Behind,” she said.

As it stands now, according to minutes of the State Board of Education’s October meeting, the plan is to request $20 million from the state in “UBSCT Remediation” to address the test’s large failure rate. Further on in the October meeting, minutes indicate board members motioned to ask the Legislature for the money under the label of “UBSCT Support,” not “Remediation.” Regardless of the word change, $20 million is still $20 million. Forty percent of our students failing is hardly a passing grade. How much more money should we pour into the system before we question the system?

Education solutions aren’t easy to come by. But one point is clear: As a state, we must prioritize. To Spackman Moss, that seems obvious. “We value families here in Utah. Children are our future. If that’s the case, shouldn’t we be willing to pay more to educate them?” she asks.

For Donaldson, who reads notes from students asking to be excused for family vacations at Lake Powell, that prioritizing must start at the parental level.

“I just laugh,” Donaldson said. “They can have the big boats. They can have the big homes. They can run off on this vacation, but they can’t give more to education.”

Donaldson has given 18 years to teaching kids, only to see an overall decrease in her income in the past two years due to a health insurance rate hike. But she’s like every other Utah teacher, working hard at a profession she loves. Some would say it’s teachers such as Donaldson and Lambert who deserve a better public education system.

With an ever-growing population and morphing demographics among the challenges Utah schools face in the future, it remains to be seen whether students in coming generations will be able to spell C-A-T-A-S-T-R-O-P-H-E, but they may know it first hand when the last bell rings.

— Sadie Hoagland
Salt Lake City Weekly


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