School Bureaucracy: An Honorable Enough Compromise?

Return with me now to our state’s high stakes achievement testing, the High School Proficiency Exam (HSPE), the backbone of No Child Left Behind in our state.

As the counselor to this year’s juniors, I watch the results of my students closely. Prior to testing this spring, two hundred and fifty students, or about half the class, had either failed one or more of the reading, writing, and/or math tests, or had failed to take one.

The math HSPE this year underwent the third reinvention for my class. It was designed to be given late in the school year and as an End of Course assessment (EOC) in Algebra or Geometry. Though this is a somewhat different story to that of Allen and efolio, reported recently (7/17/11 School Bureucracy: Don’t Think Too Far Ahead), the moral is similar, and the story involves yours truly.

In January I heard by the grapevine that there was some question whether or not members of my class who had taken the math assessment once, but not passed it, would be given an opportunity to take it again, so I inquired carefully of the correct parties in our district if in fact this group of students would be given the math test again. The question arose because, by the rules of the state graduation requirements, if a student has taken the math HSPE, now the EOC, at least one time, but does not pass it, they can still graduate by taking two full years of math “after tenth grade.” Though there appeared no rational reason why these students would not be given the test a second time – even budgetary reasons wouldn’t seem adequate to exclude them — I wanted to be in a position to advocate for sanity if in fact the powers that be were seriously considering the lesser option.

By the lesser option, if students who had already taken and failed the test were not allowed to take it a second time, then their only means to meet the state math standard would be to pass the two years of math after tenth grade. One could say “Well, just pass the blessed classes,” rightly enough, but in the washout I anticipate there would be a small number of students who would not graduate, in this era of accountability, because of failure in math courses when they might realistically have passed the math HSPE/EOC on a second try.

Long story short, I was assured by a reliable source that all students who had not passed the math test would be given the new test this June. So knowing my students to have their head in the sand, by periodic visits to classrooms and via a letter my administrator and I sent to parents of the kids involved, I broadcasted the necessity of taking the math HSPE/EOC in June. I know my message got through to a substantial number, because alongside the plea to take the test was a directive to affected students to make sure they enrolled in “two years of math after tenth grade.” In the ensuing registration process, I was pleased at the percentage of students who in fact heeded my call.

Fast forward to June 1, the day before the test. By various channels I started to get discordant information. Students who I expected to take the test were informing me they had been told there was no test for them, and they were assigned to be in a “holding tank”, the library. I started to get a few phone calls from parents who had paid attention to my earlier letter, and were understandably confused when their kids came home saying they weren’t assigned to a testing classroom. Finally, I tracked down the good administrator in charge of the testing. She confirmed that students who had already taken the math HSPE wouldn’t be taking the test, contrary to my earlier information, because they “had not been given tests for everyone” who had previously taken the test but not passed. Demonstrating some lightness on her feet, she did allow a relatively small number of the affected students to take the test if they wished because she said there were a limited number of unassigned tests available.

Later the day of the test I felt I had my hand metaphorically slapped when she and I talked. Relative to the confusion students were obviously coping with, I told her that I had checked in January, was told all of those who had not passed would be given tests, and related the steps I had taken to make sure the information was widely and correctly understood. Apparently I had acted without consulting her, who I had not even known would be test coordinator, despite the fact I had acted with my class level administrator’s knowledge. Which begs the question, given the assurances I had originally been given in January, why would I consult about promoting the specifics of state graduation testing? The answer in bureaucratic reality: there was anxiety about egg on face.

Later I learned to my satisfaction that in fact we did have enough tests for all students who needed them, which may have been why the hand slap I felt was a light one. Other schools, sister schools in our school district, did in fact have all the needed tests. Why would we alone not have the requisite number?

The decision to not retest students who had taken the EOC once, but failed, may have had to do with the large number of students we had to test at one sitting, and the difficulty of finding enough appropriate testing stations, but that is only speculation — I had no seat at the decision table.

But the point is not that a bad decision was made, if in fact I am correct. The point is that this employee (moi) took what he thought to be reliable information and had the initiative to run with it, doubting correctly that anyone else would take it upon themselves to adequately inform my students of the realities facing them. Isn’t that how a system is supposed to work? Information from upper decision making levels provided to the gears of the operation so that actions staff takes and decisions staff makes are properly oriented to the bigger picture?

But in the end most of my efforts came to naught, and I am left with trying to ensure that all students who need the two years of math are in fact so enrolled. As I left school for the summer, I had identified approximately forty students who were not so enrolled, with only about ten seats available in open classes. We need another full section of some math or another.

Honestly, a relatively small percentage of the students I am talking about would have passed the math HSPE/EOC, as long as it is about the same rigor as earlier tests. If it proves to be a test easier to pass, as cynics might suspect, given the stakes involved, then my students have truly had the playing field skewed on them by being denied the opportunity to take the test.

Finally, I am left with my friend Allen’s dilemma, to be or not to be. When one can suspect one’s efforts will be brought down by the detours of the system, will one take new initiative when circumstances call for it? Clearly the answer for too many in schools is to not to bother, but to cocoon themselves in their classroom, with their students, and do what they can do in their relatively circumscribed territory. Take the good vacations, enjoy the kids and colleagues, and believe that some good comes from one’s honest efforts.

For some, I suppose, that is enough — an honorable enough compromise.

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