Standardizing Small

How testing and top-down reform can undermine small schools

By Ann Cook and Phyllis Tashlik

Illustrator: David McLimans

Schools that have succeeded with many of the most challenging students have become the target of attacks.
David McLimans

Much of the current wave of school “reform” is, in fact, a distortion of what progressive educators think of as reform. From President Bush to governors, from state legislators to business leaders and other policymakers, reform has come to mean a punitive system of testing and retesting. “Standards” have become interchangeable with “tests,” and innovative small schools are among the victims of the testing juggernaut.

Throughout the country, recess, physical education, art, music, and theater have all taken a back seat to layers of standardized exams. In New York City, public school children are now subjected to 21 citywide and statewide tests in addition to 42 “diagnostic” assessments from kindergarten through 12th grade. Several months ago, the New York Board of Regents, which governs New York schools, approved a policy that would allow low-performing elementary schools to dispense with music and art in order to allow more time to prep students for statewide tests.

Completely ignored in this push for testing is the damage such policies inflict on schools, kids, teachers, learning, the curriculum, the arts, and the very future of our society. Having no understanding of life in the classroom or the subtleties of trying to reach students, particularly students from poor communities, and having little or no respect for the judgment and experience of teachers, policymakers seem capable of “improving” education only by instituting more punitive measures and calling for more tests.

This blind acceptance of testing as the sole measure of student learning has coincided with a massive infusion of funds to establish new small schools. These schools supposedly follow the model of previously established, successful small schools. But many of the new small schools proliferating across the country have not had the opportunity to develop in the way of their predecessors.

Those original small schools were creative places where the founders had a clear idea of the professional culture the staff wanted to nurture. Curriculum and assessment grew out of that culture, and teachers had the flexibility needed for developing curriculum, methodology, and assessments appropriate to their students. In small schools, teachers found the support they needed for developing new infrastructures, like schedules with teaching periods longer than the conventional 45 minutes; using funds to buy novels and collections of primary historical documents as opposed to bland and misleading textbooks; making time for teachers to meet to discuss curriculum, school governance, individual student progress, and content area concerns; and to develop assessments that had real diagnostic value in addition to providing meaningful evaluations of student learning.

Now, many small schools are being created in the image of large schools that have completely conformed to the testing requirements of state and federal governments. They have become small large schools. New teachers who enter these schools — instead of being mentored in an innovative climate that effectively engages and excites students and teachers — are being molded in a climate that stultifies creativity and intellectuality. Young teachers in these schools have little idea of what an alternative assessment system could be or what student work produced in such a system could look like. Instead, they are handed reading materials that fail to challenge students, writing exercises that require formulaic responses, and professional development that dulls the mind and the spirit by focusing on teaching to the test. Testing has effectively lowered rather than raised standards for both students and teachers. We fear that the best and the brightest of the new teachers will quickly become bored, or disenchanted, or both, and leave the profession altogether.

We have already witnessed high turnover rates among teachers as schools fall into the mold of test preparation at any cost. Although the original small schools in New York were one of the main inspirations for the massive infusion of foundation money into the city’s public school system, they have been marginalized as models and their assessment system has been undermined by both city and the state administrators. Many of the new small schools have adopted only the appearance of small, not the underlying structure, the focus on pedagogy, or the commitment to create a professional community that characterized the early generation of small schools.

When testing dominates as the only assessment that matters, the testing industry moves in. It manufactures not only the tests, but the practice tests, the diagnostic tests, and the test-prep curriculum, essentially burying all other course designs and innovation. Thanks to the No Child Left Behind act, testing is big business everywhere. In 2004, New York City spent $1.2 million just for language arts tests in grades three, five, six, and seven, and awarded $7 million to Princeton Review for test-prep interim assessments. New York City pays private tutoring companies some $109.5 million to raise test scores. That’s money taken from our classrooms, our book and library budgets, our art and music programs, and our recreation and sports programs.

Developing Alternatives

The New York Performance Standards Consortium is a network of 28 small schools in New York City and upper New York state. We have been virtually the lone voice taking issue with New York’s testing policies. More importantly, Consortium schools have provided a solid alternative to excessive and high-stakes testing — an alternative that has proven to be challenging to students and effective in its outcomes.

Performance assessment is a system that recognizes the close connections between curriculum, the types of assessment used, and the professionalism of teachers in delivering instruction. For the past 10 years, the small Consortium schools have demonstrated that this system supports, rather than undermines, a meaningful curriculum, one based on intriguing questions and investigations instead of narrowly conceived multiple-choice questions and formula-based essays.

Performance assessment provides students with multiple opportunities to demonstrate knowledge and in-depth understanding through written work, performance, oral presentation, discussion, scientific experimentation, mathematical applications, and social science research. Consortium schools require students to demonstrate competence in four basic areas: literature, history and social science, mathematics, and science. These assessments are augmented by additional school-based assessments in such areas as arts criticism, foreign language proficiency, and extended community service or internships. In addition to teachers, other knowledgeable adults from outside the school — such as microbiologists and college faculty — are involved in assessment processes. The Performance Assessment Review Board, a select body of nationally recognized educators (such as Linda Darling-Hammond, Pedro Pedraza, and Ted Chittenden) periodically visits Consortium schools to sit in on student presentations, interview students about their work, and review the assessment system with school staff.

In addition to better assessing academic performance, the performance system measures students’ ability to sustain work over long periods of time, to plan and organize a variety of work tasks, to design original research, to revise written work, to work independently, and to speak clearly and persuasively.

Despite serving a more challenged population than New York City schools as a whole, Consortium schools are succeeding at rates far superior to their exam-driven counterparts. Compared with the general high school population, Consortium schools have more students of color (71.1 percent versus vs. 69.8 percent) and more students who qualify for free lunch (60.7 percent vs. 54.0 percent). Consortium schools also serve more 9th and 10th grade students who score below the state standard on reading and mathematics tests. Yet a recent study of graduates in their sophomore year of college confirms that Consortium students are well prepared for college-level work and continue to outperform comparable peer groups. Most attend competitive four-year colleges, and 84 percent of those attending four-year colleges return for a second year of college. In comparison, less than 75 percent of comparable non-Consortium students return for a second year. The Consortium’s performance assessment system represents a much truer reflection of what students need to be able to do once they get to college than the state’s Regents exams.

In a true performance system, teachers are valued as professionals and as educators. They receive the support they need to develop in-depth, content-rich courses that explore topics that are important to them and their students. For example, at Urban Academy teachers have offered courses like Eyes on the Prize, an investigation of the civil rights era; Supreme Law, a semester-long study of constitutional issues and cases; and Playing God, a science course focusing on ethical questions. At Humanities Prep, students can take Protest Literature; Women and the World; and Your Own Story, a course in autobiographical writing. Such courses not only satisfy teachers’ intellectual fascination with their subject matter, they also engage and challenge students by raising important questions and encouraging meaningful discussion.

Valuing Discussion

Discussion is often what distinguishes active learning from passive receptivity. This is one reason discussion is minimal in test-based curricula where students are prodded to come up with the “right” answers (the ones in the teacher’s answer book) rather than more thoughtful or provocative ones. In contrast, performance assessment requires students to become active learners, contributing to the exchange of ideas in the classroom. It asks students to base their responses on evidence found in their reading, research, or life experiences. And it rewards them for posing their own challenging questions. Students’ presence and voice constitute an essential source of energy in discussion-based classrooms and provide the foundation for the performance tasks students need to complete in order to graduate. Out of their classroom discussions, students develop questions for their critical essays in literature, like “Why did the societies fail in Lord of the FliesAnimal Farm, and Heart of Darkness?” In history, they ask, “Who or what is responsible for the end of slavery in the United States?” Similarly, in science they might ask, “How does the shape of an airfoil affect the flight of an airplane?” or in math, “How can you use the height of the Statue of Liberty to measure the distance traveled by the Staten Island Ferry?” The key is to pose real-world questions and develop the critical skills needed to investigate possible answers.

This approach works. The dropout rate of New York Consortium schools using performance assessment is less than 10 percent. The overall dropout rate for New York City high schools (depending on which data one believes) is somewhere between 20 and 40 percent. And those students dropping out are those who are most vulnerable: primarily students of color from poor communities. As the Urban Institute has reported, African-American and Latino children in New York State have the lowest graduation rate in the country.

What’s more, the data shows that dropout rates in New York State have increased since 1998 when the high-stakes Regents exams were first introduced. Yet this dismaying news and the connection between dropouts and the number of incarcerated youth has had no apparent impact on those who have the power and responsibility to change policy. They have chosen to ignore the fact that teaching to the test has become the norm, that curriculum has deteriorated, classrooms have become deadly, and students have voted with their feet. Although New York State’s Education Commissioner has been forced to admit that large numbers of students drop out of school before even taking the tests, he has consistently blocked all efforts to allow flexibility into the system. And schools that have succeeded with many of the most challenging students have become the target of attacks.

At some point, the political winds will shift again. Policymakers will face growing public dissatisfaction with test-driven education and high-stakes consequences for schools and students. People will search for more enlightened and thoughtful approaches to school improvement and assessment. This is one of many reasons it is important that schools like those in the Consortium survive, to be ready with a well-substantiated assessment alternative supported by research, examples, and years of reflection and development. In large part, our educational future depends on it.

Ann Cook ( is co-chair of the New York Performance Standards Consortium and director of Urban Academy. Phyllis Tashlik is the director of the Center for Inquiry, a professional development organization, and a teacher at Urban Academy.