The Collateral Damage Of IMPACT

I’ve often noted how high-stakes testing in K-12 education collides with Campbell’s Law, whether it be fraud or how students are treated in class. But this in-depth look at a D.C. public school shows how much standardized testing, in this case PARCC which is used for IMPACT evaluations, harms student learning.

The IMPACT system, while altered a bit over the last decade, was the brain child of former D.C Chancellor and poster girl for education reform, Michele Rhee. Like most education reform efforts, the theory is that high-stakes evaluation will improve ‘performance’ (which might not have much to do with learning). In reality, it harms student learning (boldface mine):

Together, the fiascos have sullied DC Public Schools’ self-styled image as “the fastest-improving school district in the nation”—and forced a conversation about the conditions that gave rise to the moniker in the first place. Namely, a decade of education reform. A decade ago, 37-year-old Michelle Rhee became DC’s schools chancellor and, in the process, a national education celebrity. Rhee had a radical theory of change: Get rid of bad teachers, it went, and you’d raise test scores along with the fortunes of a city. At the time, byzantine union protections made it incredibly hard to fire a teacher, but Rhee essentially broke the union when she negotiated a new contract that enticed teachers to give up tenure in exchange for higher salaries. To be sure that the District retained only the best talent, she rolled out a system for grading teachers. Dubbed IMPACT, it tied those grades to standardized-test scores and in-class observations. Fail and you’re fired

But it now seems clear there were unintended consequences. Ten years on, teachers have continued to depart at roughly the same high rate: About 20 percent leave the system yearly—significantly higher than in comparable urban districts. Because that figure doesn’t capture teachers who leave one school for another, the real magnitude of turnover is undoubtedly much greater. In other words, long after Rhee’s changes should have stabilized school staffs, the opposite is true. “We’re bleeding teachers,” as one employee at Anacostia High School puts it…

Some of this churn is a natural function of the talent pool the District began courting: highly educated twentysomethings straight out of college who might come to town for a few years but then move on for other jobs or opportunities. Rhee herself is a proud alumna of Teach for America, whose short teaching stints were modeled after those in the Peace Corps. Yet there’s a real worry that the District is driving away scores of good teachers who do see their job as their vocation—especially at the underserved schools that need these people most. Just look at Aiton Elementary.

And here is some natural history:

As soon as he started, though, he saw what his predecessors meant. Hired to teach reading, he immediately found himself caught between the kids’ needs and his own need to align himself with the demands of the curriculum, which was influenced by the IMPACT rubric. Though he supported its standards in theory, the curriculum required him to teach on grade level, yet his students were typically reading several levels behind. “For the first month, there were probably 26 out of 30 nights I came home sobbing,” he remembers…

In the chaos of that first year, there was one good lesson Quay remembers. Protests were erupting after the shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, and Quay’s kids were noticing. Other Aiton teachers had advised him not to address the subject and to follow the curriculum instead. But one morning on a whim, he scrapped his lesson plan and picked up 40 copies of Express as he exited the Metro. He had his kids annotate the coverage (which met the curriculum guidelines), discuss the meaning of the words “privilege” and “justice,” and write their own news stories.

He’d never seen the students so excited to learn. “There was one boy who had been struggling before,” he says, “but his answer about justice was so sound and so unlike him that I was like, ‘I’ve failed you for most of the year because I didn’t know how to reach you.’ That’s when I realized this is what it’s going to take. It was so hard to get to that point, where I was satisfying the kids and satisfying the system at the same time.”

And then Campbell’s Law rears its ugly head:

For six weeks each year, Aiton administers the PARCC exam, a standardized test every DCPS student takes. (It stands for Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers.) The stakes are high: Staff jobs and bonuses depend on the scores. In the school, the mood shifts. Instruction and learning, in effect, peter out for nearly two months.

It was always a fraught period for Quay and Alejandro. Though they generally support the standards that the test assesses, the teachers couldn’t help but feel as if everything they’d worked for all year would unravel each spring. “We’d establish a strong environment with engaging lessons every day,” says Alejandro, “and that would just shut down during PARCC. Motivation becomes completely depleted. The culture of the school is gone.”

Some days, this futility seemed to crystallize in front of Quay, such as the afternoon last spring that drove him so crazy he chokes up describing it. He’d planned a lesson on percentages in which his students would calculate their basketball-shooting accuracy at little courts around his room, but when the kids came in from testing, they were “literally screaming about PARCC,” he says. “It was an explosion of frustration.” He abandoned the dribbling for a yoga exercise.

The stress, he knew, was something he’d pushed on them. For one thing, there was the personal pressure. Quay had been aiming for the top rating on IMPACT, which came with a $25,000 bonus—money that, when he’d gotten it in the past, had been instrumental in paying off student loans, financing a wedding, moving. But there was also the institutional pressure. Aiton is what DCPS terms a “priority school,” meaning it has a history of low test scores. Under federal law, priority schools are punished if scores don’t rise along predetermined levels—and principals’ jobs hang in the balance. In Quay and Alejandro’s experience, the message to Aiton from the central office was unequivocal: Raise the numbers or else…

Now, after years of toiling over lessons that both hooked his students and served as test prep, Quay was starting to feel the effects. He’d gained weight. He never got enough sleep. Over four years, he’d spent about $6,000 of his own money on the classroom. Should he move on?

This level of teacher turnover is hurting these schools–and their students. Despite claims that IMPACT and other policies would help at-risk students, these policies are, in fact, hurting them. Regarding D.C. schools, it would take real political leadership to move away from IMPACT, but Mayor Bowser is the last person to do something transformative. So Campbell’s Law it is.

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