Interview: Why Philly Students Can’t Win on Standardized Tests

It's the textbooks, says Meredith Broussard.

Broussard-Medrez0002Meredith Broussard, an assistant professor of journalism at Temple University’s school of media and communication, examines the performance of Philadelphia public school students in a new piece at TheAtlantic.com, “Why Poor Schools Can’t Win at Standardized Testing.

The answer, it turns out, is somewhat simple: The same companies make textbooks and the standardized tests. But Philadelphia students largely don’t have access to the textbooks that form the basis of their tests. Shockingly, she reports, the district’s textbook budget for the recent school year was … zero dollars per student.

“I think that this project can help give us a way forward,” Broussard told Philly Mag this week.  “It can help us figure out exactly what kind of funding do we need, in order to achieve the goals of the system we put in place. And, if we can’t afford this system, then, well, we need to rethink how we’re implementing education.”

Some excerpts from the conversation:

You’ve got an interesting piece at TheAtlantic.com right now. You investigate how public schools achieve high test scores. Why, initially, did you take the plunge into this research?

Well, it started when I began having trouble helping my son with his first grade homework. And I’m a college professor. I had expected that I was going to be able to help him with his homework through at least fourth grade. And so, I thought, well, if I’m having trouble with this, other parents are probably struggling too. I wanted to help him get to the answer that would give him full credit, but I couldn’t without the book … because worksheets and books and tests all match up together. I mean that’s how education works.

Let’s talk a little bit more about that. It almost seems a no­-brainer that what’s in the textbook might be the thing that’s on the test. But it seems to be kind of a surprising discovery in a sense. Why is that?

Yeah. I was really surprised to discover that the schools don’t have the textbooks or the other learning materials that would allow the students to learn the material that’s on the test.

Let’s take a step back then. Which textbooks, who’s providing the textbooks, and who’s providing the test? Because that’s important part of this, isn’t it?

The same people write the textbook and write the tests.

But, we don’t necessarily always have the textbooks here, do we?

Well, if you don’t have the textbooks that match the test, then you’re at a disadvantage when it comes to taking the test, the same way that I was at a disadvantage when I tried to help my kid with his homework.

So, in Philadelphia, then, how often do kids actually have the right textbook that’s going to be preparing them for the test?

According to my analysis, students in Philadelphia schools on average had only 26 percent of the books that they would need to learn the material that’s on the standardized tests.

That would seem to put Philadelphia students at a radical disadvantage when it comes to testing.

Well, you know, we’ve known for years that the Philadelphia schools are under-resourced. There’s just not enough money. There’s not enough staff.

The textbook budget is zero dollars per student. The textbook budget last year was zero dollars per student. And, I think that’s a problem. Schools need books. They also need art and music and counselors, but if you don’t have books, it really calls into question, what are you doing?

Who’s benefiting from having that correlation between what’s in the book and what’s on the test?

You know, this is one of the things that have made people most uncomfortable about my article. The idea that the tests and the books are written by the same big three educational publishers. And, this is another nuanced issue. Like, somebody has to write the tests and somebody has to write the books. And, on the one hand it makes a lot of sense for that to be the same people, because that’s how it operates in the ordinary classroom, right? Like the teacher writes the test and the teacher determines what the kids learn. And, if the kids have learned­­ have mastered the stuff that the teacher teaches them, then they can do the test. So, it makes a lot of sense on the one hand.

On the other hand, the concentration of money and power. … Readers have reacted by suggesting that they do have very complicated feelings about that. And so I think that as a society, we need to grapple with that, and we need to say, “Is this what we want?”

So, what are your feelings coming out of all of this? I mean, how are you going to help your child now as they’re going to proceed to second grade and going to face these tests and these issues all over again?

Well, I learned an awful lot about how the tests work, and I have actually taken a strategy from one of the parents I interviewed for the project. This parent has been involved with the Philadelphia public schools for 25 or 30 years. One of the things that she has learned to do is, she has learned to acquire copies of the textbooks, either from thrift stores or from extras that the teachers have and she just keeps them at home, so that she has a personal reference library for when her kids have problems with their homework or need to study for tests. And, that’s definitely something that I’m going to do, as well.

That doesn’t sound like an option that’s available to a lot of parents in the school district, though, I’m guessing.

Yes. I think that’s true. And, I think that that’s a problem. I mean, as citizen I think it’s a problem. I would rather that our schools have enough books for all of the children, and I want every kid to have access to the learning materials.

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