This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.
For most school administrators and teachers, "making AYP" – adequate yearly progress – is like the weather. You can complain all you want about it but you can’t avoid it.
But what about students? Students can’t avoid the effects of the No Child Left Behind (NCLB) law either – they are the ones who have to boost their test scores to meet performance targets.
But how aware are students of the changes that are going on in schools as a result of NCLB, and how do their views compare with the comments and complaints heard from educators? What do students think about the intensified concentration on test preparation and scores?
Contrasting answers come from high school students belonging to Youth United for Change (YUC) chapters at Strawberry Mansion and Edison High Schools.
YUC is a student organization that organizes students to change their schools. While YUC does not claim to speak for all students, its members generally have a good sense of what students are thinking. YUC chapters carry out surveys and listening campaigns to find out what students are concerned about and to set their own goals for organizing.
Concerns at Strawberry Mansion
At Strawberry Mansion, the YUC chapter has a range of concerns about how the school prepares students for the PSSA and is planning a campaign around these issues.
Strawberry Mansion was one of three comprehensive high schools in Philadelphia that made AYP last year. However, YUC members at the school say students are unhappy with many of the methods the school used to achieve this goal.
Last year Kristina Hill, then a junior, testified before the School Reform Commission to protest being pulled out of advanced placement classes for test prep activities. Students were assured that their grades would not suffer as a result, but Hill notes, "It’s what you learn, not just your grade that’s important, and you can’t learn if you’re not in the class."
YUC students say the pullout program was selective, targeting students who, based on their TerraNova scores, were likely to score high enough on the PSSA to make the move from one performance category to another, a major measurement in calculating AYP. This approach of targeting students who were close to proficiency for special help was widely practiced across the District.
YUC members are researching other options they think would be more effective than pulling students out of core subject classes. They argue that all students should have access to productive opportunities to improve test-taking skills at the school.
Many students complain that the Kaplan test preparation materials in use were boring and lacked relevance. In response, YUC member Tiffany Thomas proposed that students meet to discuss how to make test preparation more interesting.
The frustrations about test prep materials mirror a more general feeling among YUC members that instruction is less engaging because of the test prep regime. Some students complain that they have to copy the state standards for each lesson and in some cases memorize them.
"We used to do a lot of things that were fun, like in science when we did hands-on experiments," said 11th grader Kenneth Williams. "Now it’s just worksheets, worksheets, worksheets."
Another practice YUC students seek to change is the circulation of test prep scores among the students, which happened last year among the 11th graders who were selected for test prep. The students say this is humiliating to them. In a similar vein, students who are late have had their names read over the public address system.
"Why do they have to put us down?" student Shardae Westcott protested.
"What we need is encouragement," Kenneth Williams added.
While YUC members have many questions about the value of high-stakes testing, they say they understand that schools have little choice but to try to meet AYP. What they say they want is a constructive dialogue with the administration about how to make this process more equitable and more respectful of student needs.
Different view from Edison
YUC members at Edison High School had a more positive take on the impact of NCLB on teaching and learning. Edison, like all but a few comprehensive high schools, did not make AYP last year. It did improve its graduation rate but failed to sufficiently increase the number of students scoring "proficient" in reading and math.
One issue at Edison is the requirement that students who are English language learners take the grade-level PSSA in English after only one year in the country. Pennsylvania has not provided a test for students to take in their native language even though the No Child Left Behind law allows English language learners up to three years to take the test in their native language. The state’s testing policy adds a whole layer of difficulty in trying to raise test scores at schools like Edison with a large number of non-English speaking students.
YUC at Edison is focusing on issues other than AYP right now, and so students were not as well informed about the NCLB law and its ramifications as the students at Mansion.
Tenth graders Aquannette DiCastanada and Timeka Ellis both expressed the view that teachers now seemed to be working harder and are more focused on helping students learn than before.
Student Diomedes Sallas saw much of the test prep as "helping us prepare for college." While some students complained test prep materials were boring, others found them engaging. Students cited the use of past PSSA open-ended questions as a widespread form of test preparation.
According to the students, Edison is offering a number of incentives to get students to take the test and improve their test scores, including T-shirts and payment of a portion of graduation dues. These incentives were well received by students and helped boost both attendance at afterschool test prep classes and test participation at the school.
This year marks the implementation of the Kaplan-designed core curriculum for the high schools, and District officials say that preparation for the PSSA will now be better integrated into instruction.
But the pressure on students to perform is bound to grow – with so many schools behind the AYP eight-ball, including 15 high schools that are in "Corrective Action II, second year," and therefore subject to management restructuring. How schools and students experience this growing pressure will be something to watch.