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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.

"I can relate to Paula, how people don't believe Latinos are smart enough for college," Yessenia added. "These stereotypes make me want to prove them wrong."

"Speaking of stereotypes," Brianna said, "I was in the bathroom with five other black girls, and we were fixing our hair. Two Asian American girls come in and they run out right away, thinking that we are going to bully them. I want to fix that. I'm a nice person!"

Roth jumped in, "Rebecca, you were talking to me about this kind of stereotype the other day. Do you mind sharing what you said?"

"When we moved to St. Louis from China," Rebecca said, "we went to an all African American school. My parents were telling me to stay away from black students. They said don't trust them, run away. But they were all really nice to us. A lot of times it's coming from parents, but they just don't know."

At the end of class, Brianna and her friend Destiny came up to Maria. "What's 'Viva la Raza'?"

"It kind of means being proud to be Latino," Maria explained.

"How do you say it?" Brianna asked, and Maria told them. "Viva la Raza! Viva la Raza! Viva la Raza!" the three chanted out loud, fists in the air, laughing.

As students shuffled out, Roth reminded them, "A short reflection on this film is due next time. And please! Don't summarize, analyze. Why is this important? How does it connect to other things we learned?"

The following Monday, Roth passed back his students' homework essays. On Maria's he'd written, "It's a B this time! See me about this, OK?"

Maria showed up at his office the next day. "Some of the stuff you've been writing is so powerful. You are really getting there, Maria," Roth said, lowering his reading glasses and putting down a folder.

"Why isn't it an A then?" Maria half-smiled, and pulled out her homework. "Is it because of bad grammar?" She pointed at Roth's corrections on her paper.

"Look, writing is primarily about ideas," Roth told her. "Language, grammar, and style are important tools to express those ideas. But don't start by focusing on a few grammar mistakes, or you'll get stuck and ignore the bigger issues." He explained why he made certain corrections, but he spent most of the time talking to Maria about the elements he deems essential "to getting your thoughts out": thesis, evidence, analysis, and conclusion. "Did you organize your thoughts in a way that made sense?" he asked her. "Did you back up your opinions with evidence? Did you go deep enough?"

Roth explained to Maria that she'd summarized and discussed Walkout really well, but when it came to analysis and conclusion, her writing seemed rushed. "What are the connections between these protests and the African American struggle for civil rights?" Maria gave a few examples. Roth suggested that she think more about why these efforts were successful. "How did these walkouts change things? Why are we studying this?"Photo by Lianne MiltonPhoto by Lianne Milton

A few weeks later, Maria presented a research paper on equal access to education. While rewriting her essay about Walkout, she'd discovered that some Latino parents were organizing school boycotts even before the onset of the civil rights movement. "Did you know that Mendez v. Westminster happened eight years before Brown v. Board?" Maria announced to her class. In the 1946 case, Latino parents won the first-ever anti-segregation lawsuit in federal courts. "It helped the Brown v. Board attorneys to win their arguments before the Supreme Court," she explained. "The Mendez case was the beginning of the end for Plessy v. Ferguson, which said that 'separate but equal' is fine."

"LISTEN! ONE MORE DAY BEFORE THE big bad test," Roth announced one spring day as he passed out a test that included some practice questions from the California STAR test—the final exam in US history as far as the state was concerned.

Maria and her classmates had been working with their teachers for a month to prepare for the state exams. Principal Guthertz, who has been known to eat live worms in front of students as a reward for higher test scores, promised to get a famous chef to cook a free meal for the entire school if scores went up again, as they had in the past three years.

"All I'm asking you to do is to take it seriously. Do it for the school," Roth said as he passed out the test. "Let's do a quick review together."

Principal Guthertz, who has been known to eat live worms in front of students as a reward for higher test scores, promised to get a famous chef to cook a free meal for the entire school if scores went up again, as they had in the past three years.

"Who was the first Catholic president? Give me three things about the New Deal!" Dozens of students shouted out answers. "You are going to nail this test!"

As Roth retreated to his desk, Maria stared at the rows of empty bubbles. A sharp, pounding pain filled her head. She picked up a pencil and read the first question:

During the late 19th and 20th centuries, urban immigrants generally supported local political machines that:

(a) discouraged the new immigrants from participating in civic affairs.

(b) were usually supported by urban reformers.

(c) provided essential services to the immigrants.

(d) reminded immigrants of political practices in their homelands.

As always, Maria started translating the words into Spanish. Then she got to discouraged. She'd seen the word many times before, but it was usually in a context where she could guess the meaning of the passage without knowing every term. In this short sentence, though, there were no hints.

She tried to remember the word's meaning for a few minutes. Nothing.

Affairs was another word she'd heard before but couldn't remember. She translated the rest of the sentence—new immigrants from participating—but that didn't help. She took a deep breath and translated the rest of the answers. B was a possibility, she thought, but something felt off. C seemed right. But what about A? What if that was really the answer? There was no way of knowing. She filled in C for now.

"Five more minutes, everyone!" Roth interrupted. An ambulance siren wailed outside. Maria had spent too much time on the first five questions, and now she had to rush. She translated another page and randomly bubbled in the rest.

When she switched to the written section of the test, her leg stopped bouncing. When the bell rang, Maria kept writing, and didn't stop until Roth collected the pages from her.

Roth waited until the last student had left the room, and we looked over Maria's test together. She got almost all the answers wrong on the practice multiple-choice section, the only one that would have counted for the state. On Roth's essay question, she got an A+.

IN 2010, LATINOS MADE UP THE majority of California's public school students for the first time. At Mission High, more than half the students are immigrants, and Guthertz says 20 percent have been in the United States for less than two years.

After just one year in the country, Maria had to take the same test as native speakers, even though studies show that immigrant teens take at least four years to become proficient in English—and that's with constant focus. Maria scored "proficient" in history for the first time in the 11th grade.

A look at Maria's schoolwork, on the other hand, is a glimpse at a learner's progress. In the quizzes and tests designed by her teachers, in her research papers, essays, art projects, class discussions, and presentations, what you see is an intellect battling to find its voice: developing research and analytical skills, the ambition and empathy to immerse herself in worlds beyond her own, and the tenacity and confidence to tackle challenging problems and keep rewriting her papers even as she wrestled with the basics of her new language.

Roth has been teaching in inner-city schools for 24 years. He has been able to find ways to cover most of the core standards for the high-stakes testing without neglecting courage, craft, intellectual curiosity, and justice. But he struggles to keep the balance, and study after study shows that's true for many teachers. At Mission High, many teachers told me that there is simply no way to cover all of the standards while also maintaining a rich curriculum and actual research projects.

Yet despite a mountain of evidence that standardized tests reveal a very narrow slice of information, in most states they still determine a school's fate. In some, such as New York, students' scores on the standardized tests also play a major role in grade promotion and high school placement. And in several states, up to 50 percent of the evaluations that determine teachers' job security and sometimes pay are based on a week's worth of tests rather than a year's worth of learning.

In the broader context of education reform, standardized testing data has been seen as absolute proof of specific policies' effectiveness. Pick up almost any news story on education—whether it is about charter schools, teacher bonuses, class sizes, or teacher unions—and the go-to evidence is gains or losses on the tests without regard for other measures, even easily available quantitative data such as dropout rates, student attendance, teacher attrition, or college enrollment rates.

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