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Opinion: Holding poor children accountable for a test score is unfair

This is a long piece by a scientist on the external factors that undermine student learning. I am increasingly realizing our mantra to poor kids can't simply be, "Work harder and you will overcome all the obstacles in your path and succeed."

Do a handful of poor kids do just that? Yes, but they are the exceptions as are high school runners with a 4-minute mile or valedictorians with perfect SAT and ACT scores. We can admire these pre ter nat u ral talents, but we should not pretend they are the exemplars.

Before anyone counters that poverty did not hold back kids a generation ago, it did. It went unnoticed  because many poor kids, especially in Georgia, disappeared early from school radar, dropping out after eighth grade.

I read an interesting piece a few weeks ago by an urban teacher tired of people telling her students they weren't prepared to face the "real world." Her students cope with life-challenging circumstances -- parents in prison, homelessness, violence, neglect and abuse -- most adults in the "real world" never experience first-hand, she said.

Emory professor Bryan Williams is an epidemiologist whose research has focused in the areas of perinatal, pediatric and environmental epidemiology and policy.

By Bryan Williams

Accountability, an idea so powerful that it creates state and national offices whose main purpose is to ensure its place in the public education system.  Just as the Cold War fostered the rise of the “military industrial complex,” America’s perceived inferiority to educational outcomes in other countries has spawned the “accountability complex.”

This accountability complex equates responsibility with student achievement. It holds students, parents, and teachers personally responsible for failure despite the reality that causes of student failure are well beyond their personal control.

Students shoulder much of the burden, particularly students who often have the least amount of power to change their circumstances. The majority of the children attending the nation’s public schools are impoverished, lacking not only capacity for accountability but the power to advocate for reform. In Georgia, as is true in much of the South, more than 60 percent of children attending public schools are from low- income families.

This begs the question, how can we hold children and families accountable for a test score, when we do not hold systems and policymakers accountable for meeting the basic economic and health needs of our most vulnerable populations? Accountability is necessary but students should not be the only focus.

Accountability is not achieved by “blaming the victim.” A narrative that characterizes children as undisciplined, parents as apathetic, and teachers as ineffective does not increase accountability, it only fosters resentment and despair.

Schools are filled with students for whom achievement is secondary to chronic illness, family violence, or homelessness.  About 12 percent of children born in the U.S. are born prematurely, a condition that is strongly associated with poor educational achievement. In urban areas, prematurity rates often approach 20 percent. How can these children be held accountable for achievement, when we are not accountable for meeting their most basic needs? Think all children start out equally?

We are not just failing students in the classroom, we are failing to give them a real opportunity to succeed, irrespective of socioeconomic inequities. Poor educational achievement is endemic in Georgia. The achievement gap is wide in our state.

In 2013, whites scored 29 points higher than blacks on 8th grade standardized math tests. More than two-thirds of Georgia’s fourth graders are not proficient readers. The quality of Georgia’s state school systems was ranked 35th in the nation.

Students who are eligible for free or reduced-price school lunch had an average score fourth grade math score 25 points lower than students­­ who were not eligible for this program.

The economic and health gap is even larger. According to the 2013 American Community survey, about 23 percent of Georgia’s children live in poverty. Kids Count ranks Georgia as 42nd in overall child well-being.  Almost 13 percent of all and 16 percent of African-American children born in Georgia are born prematurely. Our rate of prematurity is among the worst in the nation, as noted by the March of Dimes who recently gave Georgia a “C” for its prematurity rates, a specific risk factor for poor educational attainment. Many Georgia children do not have access to health care. Almost 12 percent of Georgia’s children do not have health insurance.

Decreasing inequities in health and economic conditions among Georgia’s children holds higher priority than high test scores. Holding impoverished, disadvantaged, and powerless children accountable for a test score is simply unfair. Is it a child’s fault that he comes to school sick, hungry, or neglected? Should a child who is born prematurely or has other morbidities be expected to perform as well as a healthy child, especially when such morbidities go unnoticed? Is a child culpable for ineffective classroom instruction?

There are numerous other mitigating circumstances that undermine the fairness of the accountability complex. Yet, there is no system in place to address these circumstances in a proactive manner.

Systems not children are ultimately accountable for the achievement gap. A sick or hungry child is at high risk for failure. Far too many of Georgia’s children fit that description. Almost 60 percent of Georgia’s children are eligible for free or reduced lunch. About 39 percent of Georgia’s children rely upon public health insurance. Accountable and effective systematic support of a child’s educational achievement extends well beyond pedagogy; it ensures a child’s basic needs are met. Many child illnesses are not readily apparent like physical or mental disabilities but hinder achievement nonetheless. My research has demonstrated that being born just a few weeks early can increase a child’s probability of failing our state’s standardized exams in the third grade.

Accountable systems are accountable for effectively preparing teachers. Georgia has only one teacher preparation program that ranks in the top 50 in the nation, with most ranking in the bottom of the nation and many lacking merits that warrant a ranking.

Accountable systems neither tolerate nor sustain teacher preparation programs that do not produce effective educators. Arguably we hold primary and secondary school students to a higher standard than those responsible for teaching them. Although heretical to mention but well known in education circles, primary and middle school children are taught by individuals with little or no exposure to said content.

For example, students in many elementary school teacher preparation programs are required to take very few if any courses in mathematics. How then can we expect a child to test well on content poorly understood by his teacher? Despite poor preparation, we get better teachers than a system like this deserves. Luckily many teachers hold themselves to a higher level of accountability than that required of them in college or their current work settings.

Accountable systems provide equitable support and autonomy. School districts in Georgia vary considerably in both their financial support from the state and their influence over state level policy. According to the Georgia Budget & Policy Institute in 2013, there are more than 20 schools districts in Georgia where low-income students make up at least 80 percent of the total enrollment.

Taliaferro County, a district with 94 percent of its students who are eligible for free lunch received the highest per student, cut in funding in 2013. How can we expect the students in this small community of Taliaferro County to perform at the same level as those who are enrolled in more highly funded schools?

Disparate systemic support for schools is obvious in large suburban districts like Gwinnett County Public Schools. GCPS is often lauded as the great innovator in the state and apparently compensated as such by the state. GCPS receives supplemental financial support ($65 million in 2014) in the name of “equalization” that supposedly takes into account a district’s ability to pay.

Georgia’s equalization formula is driven by both property tax rates and number of students. Consequently, unless there are increases in property taxes in the large Atlanta-Metro suburban communities or decreases in enrollment, equalization funds will always be directed to large school districts irrespective of how they perform.

The fairness of this policy has been criticized and some districts are calling for reform. It is difficult to believe that GCPS is in greater need of supplemental funding than say Clarke County, for example. According to GBPI, about 82 percent of Clarke’s students are economically disadvantaged, as opposed to about 56 percent in GCPS; yet, since 2002-2014 Clarke’s per FTE funding has decreased by about 19 percent as opposed to only about 3 percent in GCPS.

One would expect GCPS students to perform well given its economic challenges are relatively small compared to that of other counties throughout the state. However, GCPS’s performance does not warrant disproportionate compensation. Additionally, GCPS’s performance is less impressive when compared to other large suburban school districts nationally. While Gwinnett School of Mathematics, Science and Technology performs extraordinarily, this small charter school represents the only high school in Gwinnett that does so at an elite level.

According to U.S. News and World Report, GCPS does not have another high school that breaks the top 500 in national rankings. In contrast, the Fairfax County School District in my home state of Virginia has 10 high schools that were awarded Gold Medals for their performance nationally.

Performance within GCPS is also highly variable with some of the more affluent high schools performing much worse than schools with significant economic burdens. GCPS schools that perform highly despite economic burdens should be given more autonomy and financial support.

The public discourse around accountability must change. We talk as if we are starting a war on “bad test scores.”   History teaches us that wars on social problems are often ineffective. Current discourse incites state systems to target poor performing schools as enemies of the state that must be confronted, taken over, or punished. Poor test scores are insufficient conditions for such a war, and children are never the enemy. Children are better served by redirecting our aggression towards system-level, population-based change.

Georgia’s recent emphasis on school climate is a step in the right direction. Using accountability metrics such as School Climate Star Ratings and Beating the Odds acknowledge the importance of factors not within a student’s control including health, safety, teacher perceptions, and disciplinary patterns of the school.

The evidence suggests that if we invest in school climate school performance will improve as a consequence. However, school climate must be expanded beyond its current definition. Community level factors such as poor maternal and child health, transportation, housing, and crime can and do present often insurmountable obstacles for a child’s education.  Changing these factors requires community level accountability and engagement.


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About the Author

Maureen Downey has written editorials and opinion pieces about local, state and federal education policy since the 1990s.