This blog post is by Jenny Robinson, a member of the Monroe County branch of the Indiana Coalition for Public Education. It appeared as a guest column in the Herald-Times on February 20, 2017.
Test scores of K-12 students are an appealing metric to Indiana’s lawmakers, who are nine times more likely to be business owners than educators (Herald-Times, Jan. 29). The reasoning goes like this: 1) schools should be teaching reading writing, and math, 2) standardized tests measure achievement in those areas and 3) good teachers and good schools will produce students who perform well on standardized tests. Therefore, lawmakers use test scores to decide how well our schools are doing and to assign them A-F grades. Performance grants are meant to reward the “best performers” and motivate the “low performers” to work harder.
Just as this carrot-and-stick approach demeans the motivations of our teachers, the focus on standardized tests ignores much of the important, multifaceted work our public schools do. Most of us have high hopes for our children’s experiences in school that include, but are not limited to, acquiring competency in reading, writing and math. We want our children to learn to work with and respect other people; to gain a love of learning; to grow as artists and explorers; to study science, history, and world languages; and to play an instrument in a school band, perform in school plays, or compete on school sports teams.
But let’s pretend for a perverse moment that the sole goal we have for our schools is to produce students who can demonstrate achievement on standardized tests of reading and math. We would still have a problem. Test scores do not mainly describe schools’ ability to educate. They reflect the affluence and educational attainment of students’ families more than anything else.
Since Indiana’s A-F grades for schools are based largely on test scores, their distribution follows a predictable pattern. Schools serving affluent families, with low free and reduced-price lunch rates, are much more likely to receive A’s than schools serving economically mixed populations. The correlation between scores and free lunch rates is consistent and strong. (Journalist Steve Hinnefeld has documented this for years at INSchoolMatters.wordpress.com.) It is as mathematically clear in our own county as it is across the state. The yearly release of scores brings praise for high-scoring schools — whose students tend to have secure income, housing and food — and shame and consequences for low-scoring ones.
The recent distribution of Indiana’s 2016 performance grant money (aka “merit pay”), based on a formula passed by our Legislature, adds insult to injury. Reporter Brittani Howell graphed the amount brought in by each school in the Monroe County Community School Corp., arranging schools in order of their free and reduced lunch rates (Herald-Times, Jan. 28). The 12 schools serving the poorest populations brought in a combined $20,257. The other eight schools with the more affluent populations brought in a combined $258,916 in grant money — a difference of more than 10 to 1.
While MCCSC chose to distribute grant money equitably among teachers from all its schools, districts with lower overall wealth received less to give out. Wayne Township teachers received about $42 each, compared with a state high of $2,422 per teacher in well-heeled Carmel Clay — a difference of more than 50 to 1 (WFYI, Dec. 15).
Indiana’s “merit pay” formula, like its A-F grading system, rewards the wealthy and punishes the poor.
Look away, Hoosiers, and keep walking. Nothing to see here.