How to evaluate whether a school works? Ask the students.

A UGA education professor says the people who are in the classrooms every day for multiple years—students—have no say in official determinations of whether or not their schools are working for them.
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A UGA education professor says the people who are in the classrooms every day for multiple years—students—have no say in official determinations of whether or not their schools are working for them.

Credit: Ricardo Brazziell

Credit: Ricardo Brazziell

I wrote the other day about the growing push in the choice movement to broaden school evaluations beyond test scores, something public school educators have been saying for years.

I put the question out there: How should we evaluate schools?

Today, University of Georgia education professor Peter Smagorinksy offers a suggestion -- ask students.

By Peter Smagorinsky

Maureen Downey has recently published two Get Schooled essays that caught my attention.

On May 22, she published "Are test scores fair way to judge charter schools or any schools?", in which she reviews a recent report on school choice programs by the conservative American Enterprise Institute. The AEI report questions the use of standardized tests as the principal measure of school success, given that charter schools don't necessarily "move the needle" in testing as hoped. After reviewing other ways of evaluating schools, such as parental satisfaction data and school graduation rates, she asks readers: "Your thoughts on how best to evaluate schools?"

On Wednesday, she published student Henry Vencill's high school salutatorian graduation speech, "Grad from 'bad school' tackles testing, talent and typecasting." Vencill makes a case for the quality of Cedar Shoals High School in Athens, which has often felt diminished as the lesser companion to Clarke Central Hight, an Athens institution founded in 1971 when the schools were integrated and Athens High for white and Burney-Harris High School for black students merged.

I’ve been arguing against standardized test validity since I was in high school in the 1960s, when my SAT score in math was roughly 150 points higher than my verbal test score, a ratio that continued through my two graduate degree programs, with my GRE scores similarly showing my mathematical prowess to dwarf my verbal fluency.

Strange, then, that I became an undergraduate English major (my teaching credentials came through my MAT program) and undertook a lifelong career as an English teacher in high schools and English educator in universities. I found those test scores laughably fraudulent at the time and have not been persuaded that they are valid since. I stink at math, and have made my living teaching and writing about literacy.

But this is not an essay about test scores. It’s about evaluating schools, which test scores are used to do with a vengeance, by both conservative and liberal politicians. I’m writing to address Maureen’s question, asking readers what we think about how best to evaluate schools.

As I read Henry Vencill’s essay, I was impressed with his humility in claiming to be no more special than anyone else in his school, and with his articulate perspective on what makes schools work well. He’s clearly a smart, thoughtful kid with a good bit of loyalty to his alma mater. I never evaluate an institution on its most impressive people, so I’m not saying that Cedar Shoals is a great school because he went there. My daughter also graduated from Cedar Shoals, and I’ve observed classes there and at Clarke Central. I know them both, like most schools, to be complicated places.

They are complicated in part because they serve a community with high poverty rates. Graduation rates seem absurd measures in cross-district comparisons when one is far more affluent and likely to support college attendance than the other. If graduation rates and test scores have questionable validity, how do citizens develop confidence in their schools' performance? What indicators are truly telling in understanding a school's success?

In all the discussions of how to assess school quality, one critical stakeholder is rarely consulted: the students. Assessment is often conceived of as best undertaken by externally conceived and administered, “objective” measures like test scores. Or parents fill out surveys (and which parents fill them out depends on what you might learn); or graduation rates are computed (and often manipulated); or college attendance is calculated in ways that favor affluent communities; or something else.

Strangely enough, however, the people who are in the classrooms every day for multiple years—students—have no say in official determinations of whether or not their schools are working for them.

Now, I taught in public schools from 1976-1990, both as a substitute and full-time teacher in a variety of schools; and in college classes since 1990. I know kids can be infuriating and unreliable sources of information. Kids will gripe constantly that teachers demand too much of them, then turn around afterward and complain school wasn’t challenging enough for them. So their views must be considered with some reservations. I’d say the same of any other means of evaluation.

But I also think that we could learn a lot about how schools work, and whom they work for, by asking students what they think. I know kids in Athens schools, for instance, who will tell you about climate issues that never show up in school data. Test scores will never speak to issues of sexism and racism that make everyday life for many students unbearable and that affect their engagement with their studies.

Some students will undoubtedly provide feedback based on vengeance and spite. But, if a problem recurs across student opinion, then I think it’s worth listening to.

I work in teacher education and have designed a course in which our teacher candidates learn about school by tutoring and mentoring disaffected students enrolled in Classic City High, the alternative school in Athens. My University of Georgia students routinely describe their experiences as "eye-opening" because they had little experience with the sort of kid who bails out of a conventional school to attend an alternative school. Hearing about why these kids hate school is quite a revelation to the sort of high achievers who go into teaching here.

I think these kids’ opinions are well worth hearing for the UGA students in my class. These alternative school students are not student government kids or other insiders. They’re the ones who have developed strong feelings of exclusion and alienation from school, enough to seek an alternative environment. Although many high achievers have complaints about school, they tend to muffle them in pursuit of the grades that serve as their gateway to college. I think it’s important to listen to all of the students and how they experience school, not just the ones who fit it best.

At UGA, every class I teach is subject to student evaluations. As a high school teacher, I always included lengthy evaluations for all of my classes, from lowest track to highest, because my students could tell me (anonymously) what they really thought of my teaching. I did more course revision based on their opinions than anything else, and the same is true of my university teaching.

Kids’ brutal honesty can be quite sobering. I inevitably have gotten run-of-the-mill griping, but know a legitimate complaint when I see one and know when it’s time to change how I teach.

So, to answer Maureen’s question, “Your thoughts on how best to evaluate schools?” I would say: Ask the students. Use surveys, focus groups, informal discussions, and anything else that gives them a voice in the conduct of their school.

And don’t just ask the kids in student government or the highest tracks. Ask them all, including and perhaps especially the ones who hate going. They’ll tell you everything you need to know about what’s working and what’s not, and even have insights into how to change it.

Or, just keep testing and hope that more testing produces a better learning environment. Good luck with that. We know how well it’s worked so far.

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