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What Standardized Tests Miss

Students and teachers at Mission High School weigh in on the California STAR Test.

| Thu May 19, 2011 12:00 PM EDT
Honors History Class at Mission High School.

"The big bad California STAR Test is in 27 days, everyone!" Mission High School history teacher Robert Roth announces at the beginning of an honors class in March. "The way you are going to feel this is we are going to go through events really quick. But don't worry, we'll look at some things more deeply after the test," Roth explains as 25 juniors trickle in. "I'm hecka bad at these tests," Marilyn* says out loud; she puts her head down on the desk. Roth walks over to Marilyn and puts his hands on her shoulders. "No, you are not!" he says. "You are not bad at anything that's important."

Every spring since 2001, students in 3rd to 11th grades in the US sit down to take standardized tests, which are federally mandated by the No Child Left Behind Act. But how standard can standardized testing really be, when each state decides which basic "standards"—or lessons—to teach, and how to test students' knowledge of them? In California schools, standardized tests consist of multiple-choice questions only (except for a short written assignment in fourth and seventh grade). Ideally, standards and tests are rigorous. In reality, Mission High teachers believe the quality of the "multiple choice" tests in California is very low, and doesn't measure the achievement of its diverse student population. But since punishments—including school closures and staff firings—are attached to these test scores, many students and teachers here say they have urgent recommendations for "fixing" what Principal Eric Guthertz calls the "broken scales" of NCLB.

As Roth passes out a preview sheet of the California Standardized Test, Brianna Frank rushes in and takes her seat. "I'm hungry. I'm always hungry," she says. Diana* finds a red apple in her backpack and gives it to Brianna, who takes two buses from the Bayview/Hunters Point neighborhood each morning to get to school. As students take their seats, Brianna and Diana come up to the front of the class. "How many of you have heard of the Tulsa Race Riot of 1921?" Brianna asks her classmates before she gets started on her presentation. Two hands go up.

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A few weeks ago, Roth offered students their choice of research projects. Most of the options were topics that won't appear in the STAR multiple-choice questions, but Roth believes they make history relevant and interesting to his students. The Tulsa Race Riot jumped out at Brianna right away. Her boyfriend's grandmother, Edna Tobie, is from Tulsa, Oklahoma, and Tobie was six when the riot happened in 1921. Brianna spent a day at Tobie's house talking to her and her sons about it. "It was the second-largest African-American community at the time," she tells the class now. "There were black-owned businesses, a real sense of pride in people, but the local government didn't want to keep it going like that. So they attacked the community. The federal government didn't come to defend Tulsa residents from the violence. No justice was served, and some older folks blame it now on young men's disrespect for the law and the police. Even though it happened a long time ago, there are deep, deep scars in Tulsa. Edna's sons couldn't stop talking about it even though they weren't even alive then." Brianna's classmates clap as she takes her seat, a big smile on her face.

"I want to be a social worker," Brianna tells me after class one day. "Where scars come from is important for me to understand." She didn't like history at all in middle school, but seeing why bills like the 14th Amendment got passed, and how long it took to make those words on paper real, fascinates her now. "A lot of people struggled before me so I can be a free black woman. It was very touching to hear," Brianna reflected after hearing Tobie's story.

If you spend a day at Mission High, it's hard to miss Brianna. She walks straight-backed, with a big smile on her face. She looks after people. "Why weren't you in class yesterday?" she says to two Latino girls while rushing on her way to volunteer for a prom fundraiser. She has her hand up with questions or comments more than anyone else in Roth's class. "Mr. Roth, what was the Truman Doctrine?" "What's the Dream Act, again?" "How do you spell Guantanamo?" Roth says Brianna will get a high grade in his honors class, but she tells me she struggles with the standardized tests. "Why do they write them like they're trying to trick me? Who writes instructions for them?" she wonders.

Mission High Junior Marvin JordanMission High Junior Marvin JordanA week before the STAR test, Roth was covering the Civil Rights Movement and played "I've been to the Mountaintop," Martin Luther King Jr.'s last speech before his assassination. Most students haven't seen this speech before, and as the clip ends, there is a heavy silence in the class. During lunch that day, Marvin Jordan comes back to Roth's class. "I just want to play that speech over and over and over again," Marvin says. "Even though King knows he will die, he is blossoming. He knows people will continue the fight. Makes you really think about what's important in life." He wrote the strongest essay after this documentary, Roth told me recently.

In 2005, when Roth was teaching at Thurgood Marshall High School, a consultant from the California's Department of Education came in to observe his classes and suggested to him that he concentrate less on writing assignments like these and more on multiple-choice exercises to prepare for the standardized test. "'After all," Roth recalls being told, "the test has no writing component."

"If California is serious about measuring real student achievement, we have to ask students to show what they understood about why an historical event took place, and how that connects to their lives," Roth argues. He is resisting the pressures to cut out project-based learning like the Tulsa Race Riot or cut out reflections on the civil rights or discuss the implications of the 14th Amendment on immigration today, but there is no denying that the "hammer" of the sanctions is on his mind. Mission High's test scores have been going up, but that didn't prevent it from landing in the bottom 5 percent of the 843 "persistently lowest-performing" schools in the nation.

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