Teaching to the Test? 

Most people have heard horror stories about Memphis City Schools. Then there are the teachers who have actually lived them.

A former teacher at Booker T. Washington High School described the situation like this on her blog, feedingthedead.blogspot.com, earlier this year: "The kids are poor, they have crappy attendance, there's a daycare for the kids' kids, fights break out frequently, folks wear removable gold teeth and constantly quote rappers T.I. and The Game."

The teacher, who doesn't want her name used, has been teaching since 1998. "It was shocking, incredibly disturbing, and disheartening," she says. "I never imagined things could go so badly in a community."

But perhaps things are getting better. Last week, when the state released data related to the federal No Child Left Behind (NCLB) guidelines, Booker T. Washington was one of five MCS schools removed from the "High Priority" list. For the first time ever, the school district was classified as "improving."

In many ways, it's an incredible feat, especially given the demographics of the district. During the 2003-2004 school year, about 75 percent of the district's students were economically disadvantaged.

"There's so little parental involvement left," says the teacher/blogger. "On parent conference day, I might get two parents ... and at Booker T., most of the parents live across the street."

The ideas behind No Child Left Behind are certainly admirable, if not realistic. Despite that, there's some evidence that progress is being made. In the last three years, the performance gap between white and black students in MCS schools decreased, sometimes dramatically. The gap between black and white children's proficiency in elementary math went from a 30 percent difference to a 19 percent difference.

But many educators still wonder about NCLB. The Booker T. teacher says that every where she's taught the principals have been reluctant to fail students, in part because NCLB evaluates schools and systems by their graduation rates.

"You're always being threatened with state takeover," she says. "But the testing is based on the falsehood that people get to the same place at the same time."

In order to keep students encouraged or eligible for summer school, both teachers and administrators have devised ways to help children meet the requirements.

"What people usually do is build in a lot of assignments meant to help boost grades," she says. "The student's class notebook - how it's organized - will count for 30 percent of the grade to get to the 70 percent they need."

At the end of last year, teachers at Booker T. were told to give every student at least a 50 percent. The teacher wrote on her blog: "That means the kid who comes to school every day, but always manages to miss my class - I must now lie and say he's done 50 percent of the work. The guy who choked Ms. J. in her classroom - he gets a 50. "So what you're telling me is: we're now in the business of teaching an already lax population that they can come to school one day a year [and] receive a high enough F to qualify for summer school, where I'm sure someone will find a way to make them mysteriously master material they've never seen, in three weeks!"

Opponents of NCLB find a lot to complain about: It unfairly penalizes schools with a large number of special education students or English language learners; teachers teach to the test; the program is not adequately funded. For my money, the whole thing seems a bit like a shell game. Though the NCLB's goal is to raise the bar nationwide, the paradox is that for some students, expectations are lowered instead.

The blogging teacher has padded grades in the past and says she's seen how once you lower the bar, "the kids start doing the limbo. They go lower.

"What you wonder is, Are they now ill-prepared for the workload of freshman-year English? There's no notebook grade," she says.

Maybe fudging grades to give kids a chance at summer school is no big deal. Maybe credit recovery, where students can redo coursework via the computer, is a much-needed second chance.

For MCS students, school starts this week. Shelby County Schools have already started. I wonder just what, exactly, kids are being taught.

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