A few years ago, many Latino students at Mission High school failed to correctly answer this standardized test question: "Do you chop, mince, slice, or grind the ingredients of salsa?" Well, depending on which culture you come from, you might do one or all of the above. "I've seen it made in the blender, minced, and sliced," Principal Eric Guthertz told me this week. Another test question described teacups with saucers. "Culturally, most of our students don't drink tea with saucers," he says.
These are the kinds of reading-related questions high school students are about to ponder on the California Standardized Tests, which are coming up in a few weeks. To be fair: Guthertz notes that these are extreme examples, and that some kind of education accountability measures are needed. But "who is writing these tests and for whom?" Guthertz wonders aloud, as we sit in his office one recent rainy day and talk about how President Obama might revamp the No Child Left Behind Act. According to current measurements, four out of five schools could be labeled as failures, which implies that either the current scales are broken, or kids are. "The way this law is currently written just doesn't measure the intelligence and achievement of our students," Guthertz tells me.
Civil rights groups and community based organizations like the NAACP and the Advancement Project claim that failed measurement policies have actually pushed more students of color and low-income students into prisons than colleges. In a recent report (PDF), these groups argue that some schools are "increasing" their test scores by "punishing" failing students through suspensions, expulsions, and school-based arrests. Over 150 organizations have endorsed the report, urging federal policy makers to fix NCLB. President Obama announced last week that he wants to improve the quality of testing and give more control over the testing to local and state governments.
Given how much policymaker handwringing there is over low standardized test scores, it's shocking to discover how little most high school students actually care about correctly answering questions on the standardized tests. Why? Because good test scores won't help them get into college, they tell me. Test scores won't help them get scholarships either. Students know that college admissions judges will look at their grades, essays, and community engagement. So why should they care about NCLB? Here's how Principal Guthertz and teachers at Mission High are improvising to turn the school funding "sticks" of NCLB into student "carrots."