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Everything You've Heard About Failing Schools Is Wrong

Attendance: up. Dropout rates: plummeting. College acceptance: through the roof. My mind-blowing year inside a "low-performing" school.

Guthertz introduced Maria to Amadis Velez, who spoke to her in Spanish. He told her that he'd be her English teacher. On the wall, Maria noticed Velez's diploma from the University of California-Berkeley, surrounded by photos of Frida Kahlo, César Chávez, and Salvador Dalí. "He was so welcoming," Maria remembers. "He kept making jokes about our English, making us laugh. After I met Mr. Velez, I knew I'll be going to Mission."

"She didn't speak a lick of English when she started in my ninth-grade English class," Velez recalls. "That year, there were only two students whose English was worse than Maria's." Velez also noticed that Maria's Spanish grammar was about two years behind her Latino classmates'. Maria was 5 feet tall and weighed about 80 pounds. "She was tiny," Velez remembers, "but very spunky, and her leadership and popularity among students stood out to me right away."

Maria loved that she had a class with Velez every day. He taught her English and geography in the 9th grade, and history in the 10th. He often checked in with her in the afternoon. All kinds of worries kept pouring out in their conversations. Could Velez explain the word tariffs? What's this thing, analysis? Who could teach Maria how to multiply?

"I thought of myself as a really bad student back then," she recalls. "I didn't believe in myself. But Mr. Velez always told me not to give up, to keep going, keep pushing."

One day, Velez sat her down, took out a piece of paper, and started charting her path to college. He said that she needed to transfer into regular English classes as soon as possible to prepare for college. He also explained that California was one of 12 states that allow undocumented students like her to pay resident tuition rather than out-of-state rates, which can be twice as much. Velez said that Maria was not eligible for any government grants or student loans, but there were private scholarships, and he'd help her get them. All of this was possible, he said, if Maria kept her grades up, did all of her homework, and worked twice as hard as her classmates who already knew English. He said he'd be there for her no matter what. He told her to have fun and to laugh a lot.

Most days Maria did well and felt good about her progress. She met with Velez after class to review her grammar and plan for college. He urged her to write more complex sentences. By the end of 10th grade, she was writing essays that didn't fit on one page. She earned an A in Mr. Velez's modern world history class.Maria's history teacher, Robert Roth, at a picnic celebrating Mission's gain in test scores. Photo by Winni WintermeyerMaria's history teacher, Robert Roth, at a picnic celebrating Mission's gain in test scores. Photo by Winni Wintermeyer

Then one morning, over breakfast, she found an envelope on her mother's kitchen table. Inside were the results of the standardized tests she'd taken a few months before. Her stomach tilted. She'd done much worse than she'd anticipated. In history her score was "far below basic," the lowest ranking.

What Maria didn't know was that only 19 percent of Mission High's Latino students scored "proficient or above" in history. The vast majority of Latinos, at Mission High and statewide, scored similar to Maria.

She knew that Velez thought she was smart. But this was the first grade she'd gotten from people outside of Mission, and it made her wonder. Was Mr. Velez wrong?

EVERY SPRING ACROSS THE NATION, students in 3rd to 11th grade sit down to take standardized tests required by the federal No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB). Each state comes up with its own tests, based on its own list of curriculum standards students have to master in each grade. In most states, standardized tests consist primarily of multiple-choice questions.

People who fought for these tests wanted to raise expectations for all students. They knew that for decades students of color, the learning disabled, and poor students weren't challenged, often stuck in segregated and underfunded schools and shuffled into vocational training. Education historian Larry Cuban pins the beginning of the move toward high-stakes testing to the passage of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965, which sent significant extra funding to low-income schools neglected by local school boards.

By 2001, testing was at the core of a business-inspired approach championed by a loose coalition of corporate leaders like Bill Gates and education officials like Michelle Rhee, the heroine of the documentary Waiting for "Superman."

The policies were also designed to find out which reforms were improving achievement. "Class size reduction, whole language instruction, everything under the sun has been tried in our schools," Arun Ramanathan, the executive director of the Oakland think tank Education Trust-West, told me. "But how could we assess if there are any returns without reliable data? How could we know what we can scale up?"

As more states started using standardized testing, urban education reformers in the '70s and '80s were able to flag the outliers: schools that were reducing the achievement gap between white, middle-class students and students of color and the poor. Cuban believes that this data helped to dismantle the idea that poor, minority, immigrant, or disabled students couldn't learn.

By 2001, when the Bush administration was pushing No Child Left Behind through Congress, testing had undergone a political transformation: Now it was at the core of a business-inspired approach championed by a loose coalition of corporate leaders like Bill Gates, idealists like Wendy Kopp of Teach for America, and maverick education officials like Washington, DC, schools chief Michelle Rhee, the heroine of the documentary Waiting for "Superman." Standardized tests, many of these reformers believed, could bring hard-and-fast metrics—and hardcore sanctions—to a complacent world of bureaucrats and teachers' unions. Closures or mass firings at low-performing schools, bonuses for high-scoring teachers, and an expansion of charter schools were supposed to disrupt a system that, in the reformers' view, had failed students and the companies for which they would one day work.

No Child Left Behind was animated by this faith in metrics. It mandated that states use test scores to determine whether schools were succeeding or failing, with the latter required to improve or accept punitive measures. NCLB passed with bipartisan support, and many civil rights groups were behind it.

Ten years later, a growing number of education advocates say they didn't anticipate how high-stakes testing would change instruction for the worse. Among the converts is education historian Diane Ravitch, who served as assistant secretary of education in George H.W. Bush's administration and was an ardent champion of NCLB. "Accountability turned into a nightmare for American schools," she wrote in a 2010 Wall Street Journal op-ed, "producing graduates who were drilled regularly on the basic skills but were often ignorant about almost everything else... This was not my vision of good education." In his studies, Cuban has also found that an increasing proportion of lesson time is spent preparing students for tests, and the curriculum is being narrowed to what is on those tests—even though many researchers agree that cramming for multiple-choice, a.k.a. "bubble," tests contributes very little to actual learning.

The godfather of standardized testing warned that test scores were "fallible and partial indicators of academic achievement" and made it "extremely difficult to assess" the key skills people should gain from a good education.

The overwhelming emphasis on testing has led some schools and districts to cheat. An investigation by the state of Georgia last year found widespread test-tampering in Atlanta, and the Atlanta Journal-Constitution has identified similar patterns in hundreds of districts nationwide. Some schools have also cranked up discipline and school-based arrests, leading struggling students to drop out—and thus improving scores.

Overall, the last 10 years have revealed that while Big Data can make our questions more sophisticated, it doesn't necessarily lead to Big Answers. The push to improve scores has left behind traditional assessments that, research indicates, work better to gauge performance: classroom work and homework, teachers' grades and quizzes, the opinions of students and parents about a school. In his recent book The Social Animal, conservative columnist and veteran education commentator David Brooks identifies this bias—to emphasize and reward what we can measure, and ignore the rest—as a key reason why technocratic promises in social policy have largely failed to materialize. Research, Brooks notes, shows that the key to success is more often found in realms that resist quantification—relationships, emotions, and social norms.

Even the godfather of standardized testing, the cognitive psychologist Robert Glaser, warned in 1987 about the dangers of placing too much emphasis on test scores. He called them "fallible and partial indicators of academic achievement" and warned that standardized tests would find it "extremely difficult to assess" the key skills people should gain from a good education: "resilience and courage in the face of stress, a sense of craft in our work, a commitment to justice and caring in our social relationships, a dedication to advancing the public good."

IT WAS EIGHT IN THE MORNING, AND the lights were off in Mr. Roth's history class as winter rain tapped on the windowsills and warm moisture filled the room. In the flickering light of a television screen, Maria could see her friend Brianna breaking small pieces from a muffin and dropping them into her mouth. Maria lowered her chin into her hands. Her right leg, sheathed in dark blue jeans, bounced on the linoleum floor.

On the TV, Paula Crisostomo was waving a protest sign in the face of a police officer and arguing with her father, a Filipino immigrant wearing a blue work shirt. "I told you to stay away from these agitators!" he yelled at Paula. Based on a true story, Walkout captures the 1968 school protests in East Los Angeles. About 22,000 Latino students participated, inspired by a teacher named Sal Castro. (One of them—Antonio Villaraigosa, né Antonio Villar—is now mayor of LA.) Back then, most Latinos were forbidden from speaking Spanish in class. Curricula largely ignored Mexican American history, and Latinos were steered toward menial labor.

In the film, students could be seen shaking the metal gate of their school, locked shut by officials to prevent them from walking out. The students rattled the bars chanting "Viva la Raza!" while police stood on the other side. The gate broke. Maria's entire class erupted in applause as the teens flooded into the street.

After the film ended, Robert Roth switched on the lights and turned to a class sitting in motionless silence. "Any thoughts, anyone?"

"It's incredible to see how courageous Paula was," said a student from Nicaragua named Catharine. "She lost confidence so many times, but whenever she lost it, her friends were there to support her."

"In middle school I was told to speak only English at home," Maria said next. "I think that's wrong. I already do at school. They shouldn't tell me how to live my life."

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