I teach in a failing school. If failure is determined by the current system of measurement, so do most teachers in Georgia. According to the GDOE's 2010 reports, 60 percent of Georgia's schools did not make adequate yearly progress. Many people see this bottom line and assume that schools are failing Georgia's children. It is more complex than that.
"Why you want to teach here?" This was the question a student asked me my first day of teaching high school in South Fulton County. Walking through the hallways of my school, it's impossible to avoid hearing words like "ghetto" and "hood" to describe the neighborhoods in which my students reside. Whether they use these words as a form of criticism or of pride, it is clear that they think of their home as a stigmatized place, what the nightly news calls the "bad part of town." This attitude does not stop when they come into my English classroom. The words "ghetto" and "hood" have been replaced with the phrases "I can't do this" and "It's too hard." They have vilified themselves as well as their community, and their incoming test scores reflect this attitude.
Less than half of the incoming ninth-graders enter my school academically prepared. More than 50 percent did not pass their eighth-grade CRCT, the basic skills test that determines their academic preparedness for high school. Still, they are promoted into the ninth grade, for reasons ranging from "where would we put the incoming sixth-graders if 300 eighth-graders got held back?" to "we can't have 16-year-olds in middle school!"
The challenge of giving our ill-prepared students the tools necessary to pass their high school standardized tests is daunting. Getting Johnny to explain the stylistic differences between American romanticism and American realism is especially difficult if Johnny doesn't know the difference between a noun and a verb. The reality sets in: We have three years to get this group of children ready for their 11th-grade GHSGT, which determines their eligibility to graduate from high school. Unlike their eighth-grade CRCT, this test makes or breaks their future. No passing score? No high school diploma.
My students are the embodiment of turning the glass half empty into one that is nearly full. In three years, that same group of students completes their 11th-grade GHSGT with an 80 percent pass rate, a 60 percent improvement. This is a huge accomplishment.
Why is it not good enough? "Adequate Yearly Progress." These words haunt teachers like the proverbial carrot-chasing donkey. According to the federal NCLB Act of 2001, a school's success is measured by its ability to show improvement on standardized test scores on a year-to-year basis. My 11th-graders in 2012 have to test better than my 11th-graders in 2011. It does not follow each group of students from kindergarten to 12th grade and track their progress. With a 30 percent improvement on test scores in three years, my students know about progress more than anyone, but for some reason, this is not how we measure success in our schools.
It's easy, in the aftermath of the APS cheating scandal, to point the blame on educators for the shortcomings of our public schools. Cheating is wrong. Receiving federal money on the basis of fabricated test scores is reprehensible. The APS cheating scandal should not be excused, but ask yourself this: What sort of outcome do you expect when you put absurd demands on an entire system? AYP is a flawed, outdated method of accountability that determines only how one particular group of students fairs over another group of students. As a teacher, it tells me nothing except that my 11th-graders in 2009 happened to score higher than my 11th-graders in 2010. That is plausible, since it was a completely different group of children. Different human beings, with their own individual personalities and qualities and, yes, challenges and learning disabilities. If progress is what we really want, shouldn't we monitor the same group of students over time? Wouldn't that be a true measurement of each child's growth?
Editor's note: We have granted this longtime Fulton County teacher anonymity so he/she could freely discuss this issue without fear of administrative retribution.
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