Baines, L. A., & Goolsby, R. (2013). Mean scores in a mean world. In J. Bowen & P. Thomas (Eds.), De-testing and de-grading schools, (pp. 51-62). New York: Peter Lang.
It was not so long ago that a visit from the state department of education was good news. In years past, the function of a state department of education was primarily “advisory, statistical, and exhortatory” (Johnston, 1999). Indeed, a hallmark of most successful schools is the help distributed through a powerful support system, such as a board or a Ministry of Education.
During his tenure as superintendent of Massachusetts schools, for example, Horace Mann often showed up unannounced in schools to observe teaching-in-action, to chat with children, and to ask what he could do to help. Mann preached the gospel of public schools as the antidote to problems of inequality, injustice, and the loss of civility (Baines, 2006). About using common schools to educate Americans of all classes and races, Mann (1867) said,
If we are derelict in our duty in this matter, our children in their turn will suffer. If we permit the vulture’s eggs to be hatched, it will then be too late to take care of the lambs. (p. 41)
The State as Vulture Today, personnel from state departments of education are about as welcome in public schools as vultures. A wake of vultures seldom attacks healthy animals but prey upon the wounded or sick. So, when student achievement levels wane, the state sees its role not as helper, but as disciplinarian—to punish a school for allowing its students to post achievement scores below the mean. If a school is contacted by the state, the news inevitably is bad—at best, a public humiliation and, at worst, a tumult of teacher and administrator firings in a takeover. Firing people, while enjoyable for select politicians, is a tactic that helps neither student nor teacher.
Little wonder that teacher morale is at a 20-year low, and that one in three teachers admits that they are “very or fairly likely” to leave the classroom (Markow, Pieters, & Harris Interactive, 2012, p. 5). In many states, teachers are told not only what to teach but also how to teach by policymakers who have never set foot in their classrooms. Then, when test scores are reported as lower than expected, it is the teachers who get blamed—not the policies or policymakers. Recently, we visited an elementary classroom in a low-income neighborhood that enrolled 30 students, a number well above the “suggested maximum enrollment” for young children of that age. The teacher was an energetic, endlessly patient, loving, smart, first-year teacher who expertly marched through lessons in reading and science. When writing a response to a prompt, one student broke her pencil and commenced crying. Over the next 60 minutes, she would cry again five more times—she did not understand a word, her eraser did not work properly, she needed to go to the restroom, someone nearby finished the assignment before she did, she discovered an ink stain on her hand.
Another student, who looked at least a year older than his classmates, kept trying to pick a fight with nearby peers, while a fidgeting autistic boy sat talking to himself and moving his head from side to side. Standing at the front of the classroom, and continually interrupting the teacher, was a new student from Guatemala who knew only a few words of English and tried to communicate by flailing his arms. A second new student sat silently at a desk in the back of class with his head on his desk. This student had just been placed with a new foster family after his father had been convicted on drug charges and sent to jail in a different city. These were only five of the young children in her class; there were 25 others. Rather than help this first-year teacher in grappling with an incredibly challenging, large group of diverse children, the state has done absolutely nothing-- provided no help in foreign language or special education, provided no relief from an overcrowded classroom, provided no mentor. Instead, the state has informed the teacher that her continued employment is dependent upon the test scores of these 30 students.
As countless education dollars (billions?) flow toward expensive, intricate evaluation systems, teacher pay is being slashed, class sizes are expanding, teacher tenure is sliding into oblivion, and real professional development is nonexistent. All funds in education today, without exception, must be somehow linked to test score ascension. Teachers who spend time caring for the emotional and social lives of children find themselves in the strange position of subverting the directives of the state.
Lean and Mean across the Nation Among the lowest scorers in the recently made public teacher ratings for New York City were a group of accomplished, seasoned teachers from Public School 146 in Brooklyn (Winerip, 2012). Because 97% of their students had scored proficient in math the previous year, and only 89% scored proficient in math in the current year, these teachers were rated among the worst in the city. Yet, if only three children in their classes had scored one point higher on the exam, the teachers would have been rated average to better-than-average. Among this group of low-performing teachers was a Fulbright scholar, a former professor at Columbia, and a theater owner recognized by the Guggenheim Museum for developing an effective drama program for children.
In Florida, a state that rates each school and district by mean test scores, seesaw ratings have become so routine that the ratings have lost all credibility. A high school that receives an A one year might receive a C or D the next year, though the teaching and administrative staff may have remained completely intact from year to year (Florida Department of Education, 2012). One of the problems with rankings is that schools often go into testing blindly, not knowing the criteria by which they are going to be ranked. Although teachers are responsible for the delivery of instruction, testing and assessment are in the hands of policymakers.
By and large, the richest schools receive the highest scores and the poorest schools receive the lowest scores. As Tschinkel (2003) has noted in a series of articles decrying the inequity of the mathematical formula used to rate Florida’s schools, “many schools serving a less affluent population have been graded lower than they deserve and many more affluent schools higher.” About the ratings, Florida Teacher’s Union president Randy Ford commented, “It’s not that standardized test results don’t tell us anything. They’re very accurate measures of the size of the houses near a given school and the income levels of the people who live in those houses” (Postal, 2012). According to Rothwell (2012), “the average low income student attends a school that scores at the 42nd percentile on state exams, while the average middle/high-income student attends a school that scores at the 61st percentile on state exams” (p. 1).
In Ohio, 80% of the highest poverty schools received a grade of either D or F in 2010–2011 while less than 1% of the richest schools received a D or an F (DiCarlo, 2012). None (as in zero) of Ohio’s high-poverty schools were considered A-quality, while only 4% were considered B-quality. Meanwhile, 95% of the richest schools were rated either A- or B-quality.
As teachers know, some efforts and expenditures do not directly translate into higher test scores. Having a nurse onsite at a school, for example, used to be considered essential to ensure that children’s health was adequately monitored, but the presence of a nurse, by itself, does not increase test scores. Thus, in most states, having a nurse on staff has become an extravagance that schools can no longer afford. In the state where I live, on average, there is only one nurse for every 3,110 students (Toppo, 2009).
Similarly, the quality of the school library and the work of the school librarian were once deemed integral to the basic functioning of a school. In the current era of reductionism, credentialed librarians have been fired and school library collections have withered. If a school actually has a librarian, he or she may have no training in research or library science. In California, for example, 76% of school libraries have no credentialed librarian, not even a part-time one. The ratio of students to librarians is 5,124 to 1 (California Department of Education, 2008) and the average copyright date of a nonfiction book in a California school library is 1972.
This ruthless, corporate-style focus on the bottom line has become a staple of a U.S. Department of Education that enthusiastically supports “state efforts to improve the quality of their assessment systems” (U.S. Department of Education, 2010, p. 11). With regard to budget cuts, the federal government admonishes that “it is important to do more with fewer resources” and warns that, in the future, funding will go only to schools “that are designed to significantly increase efficiency in the use of resources to improve student outcomes” (p. 41). In other words, don’t expect the crises in school nurses or credentialed librarians to end anytime soon. All those ramshackle portable buildings that blight the grounds of half of the public schools in America are going to have to endure for another couple decades as well (U.S. Department of Education, 2011).
Recently, state legislators have cast their eyes on academics to streamline costs. Florida, South Carolina, Georgia, and Mississippi have taken the unusual step of forcing 15-year-olds to select a major for high school. According to the former governor of Florida, Jeb Bush, this edict allows students to “major in academic subjects such as foreign languages or history, or specific job areas such as auto mechanics. Regardless of a student’s path, majors . . . help them understand the relevance between course work and their future” (Bush, 2006).
Bush’s push to slot children into life paths at a young age has been in vogue outside the United States for years. In many European countries, it is common for students to be assigned to either the academic track or the trade track by age 15, based on their performance on a standardized test. For thousands of years, the Chinese have relied on a single, standardized test to help sort children into jobs suitable to their aptitudes and their station in life. Throughout much of the world, the richest students go to the best universities upon graduation from high school, while the poorest students enter the work force right away. Perhaps it is disingenuous for the United States to assert that it operates any differently.
The expense, uncertainty, and complexity of genuine human development make it an unpopular issue for many policymakers. In fact, for reformers of Bush’s ilk, who perceive the function of a school to be preparation for future work (or a military career), human development is beside the point. Schools are just another business, susceptible to market supply and demand fluctuations, as encumbered by profits and debts as any business.
The Mean Kid Consider the following three sets of scores.
Student A Student B Student C 100 70 100 100 80 80 100 70 70 0 80 50
All three sets of scores have a mean of 75, yet Student A looks as if he or she is capable of scoring the highest of the three whenever he or she wants to. But, what happened with that last score? Student B is fairly consistent, but does he or she really try? Student C started out strong, but recent difficulties are a cause for concern. Three different students with three distinctive stories, three diverse performances, and three different responses to learning (or, perhaps, testing). Yet all three students receive the same score with the expectation that all three should learn the same material.
Despite its crudity as a measure, the mean can be a malleable construct in the right hands. When we were teachers in Texas, for example, many schools used to routinely plan field trips for students in special education on testing day because the lower scores of special education students would crater the school mean. So, honest superintendents who did not plan a special field trip for their special education students and represented their scores accurately received lower mean scores. Their honesty, while laudable, placed at risk their jobs, the jobs of teachers and staff, and the school’s reputation.
Similarly, recent research has revealed how KIPP (Knowledge Is Power Program) schools preselect out large numbers of students by requiring parents applying to the school to sign a pledge of involvement with their children and the school (Miron, Urschel, & Saxton, 2010). Furthermore, KIPP schools have the ability to kick out nonperforming or recalcitrant students, whereas public schools have no such option. As a result, in direct comparisons of schools with similar student populations, KIPP scores are almost always going to be higher because they have cut out their lowest-achieving students. Obviously, these students have to go to school somewhere. Inevitably, they show up at the nearest public school, thereby raising the mean scores at KIPP schools and lowering the mean scores at the public school.
Even when individual student performance is pried away from the group mean, what does a mean score reveal? If you were scouting the Boston Celtics during the 1964–1965 season in professional basketball, you would learn that the top nine players on the Celtics with the highest mean performance per minute of game time were as follows (Basketball Reference, 2012):
1. Ron Bonham, 26.7 points 2. Sam Jones, 25.8 points 3. John Havlicek, 22.8 points 4. Tom Heinsohn, 19.2 points 5. Willie Naulls, 18.4 points 6. Larry Siegfried, 16.4 points 7. Mel Counts, 16.2 points 8. Tom Sanders, 13.8 points 9. John Thompson, 11.8 points
The only problem with this “achievement list” is that it excludes Bill Russell, who only averaged 11.4 points for every 36 minutes of game time during the 1964–1965 season. Was Bill Russell a lesser player because his mean score was less than that of his teammates? For those who do not know or care about professional basketball, Russell was a five-time winner of the NBA Most Valuable Player Award, a 12-time All-Star, former captain of the U.S. Olympic Basketball Team, and considered by most sportswriters to be one of the greatest players in the history of professional basketball. He could score, but his forte was defense, rebounding, and a relentless work ethic.
Bill Russell’s mean score did not provide a true indication of his contribution or talent. Similarly, students are being assessed on skills that are easily measurable-- the standardized test equivalent of average points per minute. Students possess myriad talents and skills not addressed by narrow measures of content area knowledge. The best teachers try to identify talent and give students time to work in areas of talent, as well as in areas that might need improvement. In valorizing test scores, a student’s talent, individuality, and interests tend to be viewed as obstructive and oppositional to the goals of the state.
A Mean World A common refrain of educational reformers in recent years has been the unacceptable scores of American students on the recent PISA (Program of International Student Assessment, 2010) reading test. About the 2009 PISA results, Secretary of Education Duncan (2010) explained, “Today’s PISA results show that America needs to urgently accelerate student learning to remain competitive in the global economy of the 21st century. More parents, teachers, and leaders need to recognize the reality that other high-achieving nations are both out-educating us and out-competing us.”
On the test, the average American 15-year-old (PISA only tests 15-year-olds) scored 500, 39 points behind top-scoring South Korea. Table 4.1 indicates the score of the average American in comparison with 15-year-olds in other countries.
Country Score 1. South Korea 539 2. Finland 536 3. Canada 524 4. New Zealand 521 5. Japan 520 12. United States 500
Table 4.1. Top Five Scores on PISA Reading Assessment by Country
Using a mean score obscures a rather startling fact: many Americans are among the highest-achieving students on the planet. Students who have wealthy parents, for example, scored an average of 551 on the exam, which would make them the highest scoring group in the world. Just below rich Americans are Asian Americans and white Americans, who scored an average of 541 and 525, respectively, good enough for second and fourth best in the world (see Table 4.2).
Country Score 1. Rich Americans (5,000,000 students of all races) 551 2. Asian Americans (all schools, 4,000,000 students) 541 3. South Korea (7,500,000 students) 539 4. Finland (850,000 students) 536 5. White Americans (all schools, 28,000,000 students) 525 6. Canada (5,500,000 students) 524
Table 4.2. Top Scores on PISA Reading Assessment by Country, with Wealth and Ethnicity Added for the United States
One can infer from these data that the quality of education received by 70% of Americans (the category being rich or white or Asian) appears satisfactory-- good enough to place them among the highest-achieving students in the world. It is also useful to note that South Korea and Finland are relatively small, largely monocultural societies. Finland has fewer than a million students; South Korea has 7.5 million. In comparison, there are more than 50 million students in American public schools.
A related factor not considered in PISA or other international tests is the number of immigrant children included in testing. In South Korea the rate of immigration is 0. The immigration rate in Finland is .05, or about one person in 2,000. The few immigrants who come to Finland usually hail from Sweden, and both Swedish and Finnish are official languages of the country.
In contrast, the rate of immigration in the United States is 400 times the rate of immigration in Finland. In the United States, up to 21% of school-age children (ages 5–17) speak a language other than English at home and one in three schools in the United States have “official” immigrant populations of more than 25% (U.S. Department of Education, 2012). Unlike in some countries, in the United States, children of immigrants are free to enroll in public schools, even if they are unable to speak a word of English. American assessment systems require all students, irrespective of first language or the number of years spent in U.S. schools, to take the standardized test.
Yet another factor neglected in the calculation of mean scores is the 13% of American students classified as having special needs, meaning that they have been identified as having intellectual, emotional, or physical limitations. Special education is an American invention. Children with special needs in most other countries stay at home or attend a school designated for the disabled. In America, students in special education attend school with everyone else and are expected to take the same tests as everyone else.
Considering the additional challenges wrought by influxes of non-English speaking students and the complications inherent in serving huge numbers of special education students on Individualized Education Plans (IEPs), Americans’ world-leading scores are all the more impressive.
The Bad News The bad news is actually not news at all but has become an ugly fact about education in the United States for a hundred years: Minority students who live in impoverished neighborhoods do poorly on standardized exams. On average, students who attend schools in America’s poorest neighborhoods scored 3 points below children from Chile on the PISA Reading Assessment (see Table 4.3). American children who attend poor schools score an average of 446, 105 points behind American children who attend wealthy schools (and who lead the world at 551).
Students living in high-poverty neighborhoods in America who are high achieving usually receive transportation to wealthier schools or have been the lucky recipients of dramatically increased funding. Indeed, Perry and McConney (2010) found the effects of socioeconomic status (SES) to be powerful and resilient across income groups. That is, “All students—regardless of their personal/ family SES—benefit strongly and relatively equally from schooling contexts in which the SES of the school group is high” (Perry & McConney, 2010, pp. 1157–1158). Conversely, students performed markedly less well, irrespective of background, in low SES schools.
Country Score Austria 470 Turkey 464 Chile 449 United States (children from the poorest schools) 446 Mexico 425
Table 4.3. Bottom Five Scores on PISA Reading Assessment by Country, with Students in Poverty Added for the United States
Everyone’s favorite example of the successful public school in a poor area seems to be Harlem Children’s Zone, but the school is neither poor nor open to all. Harlem Children’s Zone has an $84 million budget and assets of more than $200 million. The school receives $12,443 in public money and $3,482 in private money per pupil per year, but these costs do not include field trips, “a 4 p.m.-to-6 p.m. after-school program, rewards for student performance, a chef who prepares healthful meals, central administration and most building costs, and some of the expense of the students’ free health and dental care” (Otterman, 2010).
While American schools are educating the middle class and the wealthy quite effectively, they have been woefully ineffective at educating poor African American and Hispanic children. In response to the unique needs of these minority students in poor schools, the federal government has pursued a policy of nonnegotiable standardized testing accompanied by a funding model based on the percentage of students meeting minimal competencies. This regimen of high stakes, low-challenge testing, initiated with Goals 2000 and continued with No Child Left Behind, has become a defining feature of Race to the Top, the Obama administration’s signature education program.
Test Scores, Wealth, and Power Standardized tests assess low-level knowledge in a specific subject area and ignore everything else. Once the standardized test becomes both curriculum and goal, its omnipresence subverts learning and makes the development of talent beside the point. But, even if the state decides that standardized test scores are what matters most, data indicate that 70% of American children are among the highest-scoring students in the world, despite the public schools’ open doors to Limited English Proficient speakers and students with special needs. Everyone knows where the lowest-scoring children live and where they go to school. In America, the bottom 30% come from the poorest 30% of the population and are those most likely to drop out, be unemployed, and go to jail (Christensen, 2011). Yet, educational policy seems purposefully designed to reward the rich and to punish the poor. Implicit in the rationale for inundating even our youngest children with tests is the contention that higher test scores will somehow make the United States more competitive globally. However, no evidence supports such a belief. The wealthiest countries in the world are listed in Table 4.4.
Country / Purchasing Power (per person) 2010 / Average PISA Score in Reading 1 Qatar 90,149 372 2 Luxembourg 79,411 472 3 Norway 52,964 503 4 United States 47,702 500 5 Switzerland 43,903 501 6 Netherlands 40,601 508 7 Australia 39,841 515 8 Austria 39,561 470 9 Canada 39,037 524 10 Ireland 39,009 496
Table 4.4. Wealthiest Countries in the World (Global Finance Magazine, 2012)
Few patterns of positive correlation exist between countries whose students do well on standardized exams and countries that are economically prosperous. History holds many examples that demonstrate that school learning has little impact on economic prosperity. The Roman Republic/Roman Empire, for example, with its massive population of slaves, high illiteracy rates, and inexorable military machine, ruled much of the planet for many years without the benefit of a formal, public system of education. The leaders of Rome focused on the accrual of power, without regard to human suffering or cultural degradation.
Similarly, in the United States today, power and the pursuit of wealth drive school reform. The goal is not human development, but the processing of children at the cheapest possible cost.
Baines, L. A. (2006). Does Horace Mann still matter? Educational Horizons, 84(4), 268–273. Basketball Reference. (2012). 1964–65 Boston Celtics Roster and Statistics. Retrieved from http:// www.basketball-reference.com/teams/BOS/1965.html Bush, J. (2006, November 13). Should high school students be required to declare majors? Upfront Magazine. Retrieved from http://teacher.scholastic.com/scholasticnews/indepth/upfront/ debate/index.asp?article=d1113 California Department of Education. (2008). Statistics about California school libraries. Retrieved from http://www.cde.ca.gov/ci/cr/lb/schoollibrstats08.asp Christensen, L. (2011). The classroom to prison pipeline. Rethinking Schools 26(2). Retrieved from http://www.rethinkingschools.org/archive/26_02/26_02_christensen.shtml DiCarlo, M. (2012, March 28). Ohio’s new school rating system: Different results, same flawed methods. Shanker Blog [Web log post]. Retrieved from http://shankerblog.org/?p=5511 Duncan, A. (2010). Education Secretary Arne Duncan issues statement on the results of the Program for International Student Assessment. Retrieved from http://www.ed.gov/news/pressreleases/ education-secretary-arne-duncan-issues-statement-results-program-international-s Florida Department of Education. (2012). Florida school district rankings. Retrieved from https:// app2.fldoe.org/Ranking/Districts/ Global Finance Magazine. (2012). The richest countries in the world. Retrieved from http://www. gfmag.com/tools/global-database/economic-data/10501-the-richest-countries-in-the-world. html#axzz1stmRYW1Y Johnston, R. (1999, June 23). State agencies take hands-on role in reform. Education Week 18(41), 1. Retrieved from http://www.edweek.org/ew/articles/1999/06/23/41power.h18.html Mann, H. (1867). The life and works of Horace Mann, Volume II. Boston: Horace B. Fuller. Markow, D., Pieters, A., & Harris Interactive. (2012). Survey of American teachers: Teachers, parents and the economy. New York: MetLife. Retrieved from http://www.metlife.com/about/ corporate-profile/citizenship/metlife-foundation/metlife-survey-of-the-american-teacher. html?WT.mc_id=vu1101 Miron, G., Urschel, J., & Saxton, N. (2010). What makes KIPP work? A study of student characteristics, attrition, and school finance. New York: National Center for the Study of Privatization in Education. Retrieved from http://www.ncspe.org/publications_files/OP195_3.pdf Otterman, S. (2010, October 12). Lauded Harlem schools have their own problems. New York Times. Retrieved from http://www.nytimes.com/2010/10/13/education/13harlem.html Perry, L., & McConney, A. (2010). Does the SES of the school matter? An examination of socioeconomic status and student achievement using PISA 2003. Teachers College Record 112(4), 1137–1162. Postal, L. (2012, January 30). Educators criticize latest Florida school rankings. Orlando Sentinel. Retrieved from http://articles.orlandosentinel.com/2012-01-30/news/os-florida-schoolrankings- 20120130_1_half-on-fcat-scores-fcat-scores-and-half-school-rankings Program of International Student Achievement. (2010). PISA 2009 results: What students know and can do: Student performance in reading, mathematics and science. Paris, FR: OECD. Retrieved from http://dx.doi.org/10.1787/9789264091450-en Rothwell, J. (2012). Housing costs, zoning, and access to high-scoring schools. Washington, D. C.: Brookings Institute. Retrieved from http://www.brookings.edu/~/media/Files/rc/papers/ 2012/0419_school_inequality_rothwell/0419_school_inequality_rothwell.pdf Toppo, G. (2009, August 10). School nurses in short supply. USA Today. Retrieved from http:// www.usatoday.com/news/health/2009-08-10-school-nurses_N.htm Tschinkel, W. (2003). New and improved A+ grades: Camouflaged bias. School performance articles. Retrieved from http://www.bio.fsu.edu/~tschink/school_performance/ U.S. Department of Education. (2010). A blueprint for reform. Washington, DC: Government Printing Office. U.S. Department of Education. (2011). Percentage of public schools with permanent and portable (temporary) buildings and with environmental factors that interfere with instruction in classrooms, by selected school characteristics, type of factor, and extent of interference, 2005. Digest of Education Statistics, 2010. Washington, DC: Government Printing Office. Retrieved from http://nces.ed.gov/programs/digest/d10/tables/dt10_106.asp U.S. Department of Education. (2012). Table A-6-2. Number and percentage of children ages 5–17 who spoke a language other than English at home and who spoke English with difficulty, by age and selected characteristics: 2009. The Condition of Education, 2011. Retrieved from http://nces.ed.gov/programs/coe/tables/table-lsm-2.asp Winerip, M. (2012, March 4). Hard-working teachers, sabotaged when student test scores slip. New York Times. Retrieved from http://www.nytimes.com/2012/03/05/nyregion/in-brooklynhard- working-teachers-sabotaged-when-student-test-scores-slip.html
Lawrence Baines, PO Box 490094, Berry College Mount Berry, GA 30149