Fewer choices, fewer electives, are available in poorer areas. “The more affluent parts of our district have a greater number of electives because they have fewer support classes,” Anguiano says. “Students who are looking for a richer curriculum will transfer out of the schools that have no electives.”
“We’re going to end up losing a bunch of kids if the state doesn’t start moving in a different direction,” says Mary Smith, a middle school teacher who prefers that her real name not be used. “Not every kid is going to go to college; we need electives for kids that want to go into service fields, like my husband, for example. The only class he ever showed up for in high school was woodshop. It’s a shame that they just keep cutting and cutting from those programs and putting all the emphasis on English and math.” Smith says that the woodshop classes laid the basis for her husband to go on to become a successful tradesman.
One of the electives Smith laments losing on her campus is Technology Lab, which incorporated aerodynamics and other branches of science. “If it’s not in the curriculum, then we can’t teach it, which makes a teacher’s creativity much less than what it could be.”
Tracking, or directing students to certain classes based on their test scores, worries teachers as well. In the last swing of the pendulum, tracking was considered harmful. A Stanford study from 1994 reported that tracking limits students’ opportunities. The study found that many students who aspire to attend college are not placed in appropriate classes and “parents often don’t know when a student has been tracked out of college-preparatory science and math classes.”
“Tracking is 100 percent in motion,” says Smith. “For example, in the magnet program that I teach in all the students are obviously already tracked because all of my students have scored proficient or advanced. Then, our school has the ‘collaborative team’ with many special education students, and then the middle-of-the-road students.”
Anguiano relates a story of how tests invoked another kind of tracking at a Sweetwater district school. “About six years ago, at Granger Junior High School, students were issued different colored shirts based on their California Standards Test scores,” he says. “That kind of indicates just how serious the problem is. After I shared that story with the school board the practice stopped.”
If testing absorbs classroom time and disrupts the pacing of instruction, what’s in it for the kids?
Maria Castilleja, Sweetwater’s director of curriculum, says No Child Left Behind “is allowing educators, classroom teachers, administrators, parents, and students to evaluate the learning experiences that we are providing the students and to assess whether those learning experiences are valuable.
“The more frequent we test, the sooner we can intervene and assist students in acquiring the state standards,” she says.
However, James Bogart, who teaches Human Performance and Well Being at Rancho del Rey Middle School, disagrees. “Right now, California state testing is only for administrators, because their scores are looked at and then they are possibly fired or promoted because of them. So the administrators turn around and put the pressure on the teachers to get the scores higher. If you look at the states where testing is tied to bonuses and merit pay — Texas, Georgia, North Carolina — statistically, cheating has gone up.”
But it’s not necessary to look so far afield to see how pressure to produce plays out. In June, a Union-Tribune article exposed a Sweetwater principal who had adjusted students’ Ds and Fs upward. As the article states, “The grade changes could help improve the school’s graduation rate, an important measure of success under the federal No Child Left Behind Act.” The principal, Diego Ochoa, subsequently resigned.
Bogart believes that students would be motivated to score higher if they had an investment in the results. “When the students are held responsible for that same test, when they are given some kind of grade, whether they get a bonus or a full bump up on their letter grade, then they have more of a buy-in.”
Castilleja concurs with Bogart on the idea of student buy-in. Although she is a strong supporter of No Child Left Behind, saying that it’s “more positive than anything else nationwide,” she believes the current assessment practices are “not perfect.… We are hoping that [federal] changes are done in a way that they could have an impact on the grades of the students and [that tests] could be given at a certain time of the year and provide the results soon enough so the students could see how they’ve done.”
According to Castilleja, since No Child Left Behind began, the number of Sweetwater students who transfer to San Diego State has increased and student preparedness has improved. Sweetwater has a college transfer program called Compact for Success. The number of students transferring “has grown from 88 students in 2000 to 597 in 2011.” These students are able to enter college without needing to enroll in remediation classes because their proficiency rates are up. (About 6000 students graduate from Sweetwater Union’s schools each year, according to the California Department of Education’s educational demographics office.)
Is test-taking “turning kids off from the real joy of learning?” Joseph Pistone wonders. Pistone teaches math full-time at Sweetwater High School and computer science part-time at Palomar College. He doesn’t dispute that test scores are rising, and he says “that’s all well and good,” but he stresses that there is a qualitative difference between training a student to perform on a multiple-choice exam and educating a student to think mathematically. “Kids will graduate and know the Pythagorean theorem, but go back in a few years and I guarantee many of them won’t remember it. We’re just training kids the way we train them on assembly lines: here comes a car, you pick up the bumper, you move the bumper over here, you put the screw in here…”
Pistone, like many others, feels that multiple-choice bubble exams are not a real test of learning or the ability to problem-solve. He likens the test mania to what happened with the college entrance exam. “The SAT was supposed to be a good measure of how well you will do in college, but we have testing agencies out there now that are so good at training you to take the test that a good score doesn’t necessarily mean that you’re going to do well in college. What you’re doing is kind of fooling the judge.”