How Can a School Achieve Good Test Scores?: A Vote for First Amendment Schools

August 18, 2006

This week, I met with Fairview Elementary School teachers to discuss spring 2006 California Standards Test results. More than 41 percent of students in grades 2-6 demonstrated proficiency in math, and the proficiency rate for reading was 21 percent. Yet I am not satisfied about reporting math and reading results. These tests are meaningless unless students use school success in a way that is consistent with what Bill Gates views as the role of school: to prepare students for college, work, and citizenship.

I didn't have any state or national civic standards or First Amendment School outcomes to discuss at this faculty meeting. I wanted to share that 80 percent of our students had learned how to debate differences, solve a school problem, or define the words in the Pledge of Allegiance.

The measurement stick for being a First Amendment School, "The Core Civic Habits," is posted in my office. These describe what each student should learn and be able to practice in a First Amendment School classroom. However, the California Standards Test didn't measure whether students could debate differences, understand one another, or learn to serve the common good. They are "failing" assessments that are narrowly focused, and yet they excel at higher-order thinking and communication skills that are not measured.

I know I am not alone in my quest to make school more democratic. I have led my school with this civic-minded goal as our school mission along with the majority of my staff. And, test results are improving in large part because teachers at Fairview know that their daily work has purpose and meaning. (Students and teachers need more than test results to motivate their hard work.)

Recently, Robert Rosenfeld, a WestEd program-improvement consultant, spent the day observing classroom lessons and teaching practices at Fairview. His site-visit report concluded that "the overall climate and culture at Fairview Elementary School was very positive. The classroom management was found to be excellent and the climate was conducive to learning. All students were polite and respectful -- mirroring the behavior of staff." This did not happen by accident. Of course, we are a First Amendment School.

At the core of a First Amendment School is how adults work together. I have intentionally made staff meetings a place where adults model good civic behaviors. At this week's staff meeting, we openly discussed which instructional practices work and which ones don't work. Our meeting format is based on the Paideia Seminar model: I lead a collaborative dialogue, and teachers are free to comment, and they debate freely, knowing that their point of view is respected and valued. I model this behavior so that teachers will conduct their classrooms in the same manner.

Student academic success and ongoing progress is possible when students feel respected and valued and believe their efforts to be meaningful. Do their test scores reflect this core value? They will succeed in life -- a better measure of success than a simple paper-and-pencil test.

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