Outrage at Naming and Shaming Students

It seems that the use and abuse of standardised test scores knows no bounds. A high school in Orange County, California has instituted a system of naming and shaming individual students on the basis of their standardised test scores.

The Orange County Register reported last week that Kennedy High School in La Palma, California, issues colour-coded identification cards to students based solely on their individual standardized test scores. Black or gold cards give students special privileges and discounts while students holding white cards get no privileges. Students are also required to have spiral-bound homework planners covered in a matching color.

Black cards area given to students who score “advanced” on all subjects tested. It gives students free admission to all home athletic events, as well as discounts to school dances and at local businesses. Gold cards are given to students who score “proficient” or above on at least two subjects, or who have moved up a level in at least two subjects since the last year. Gold cards give students free admission to certain home athletic games, as well as more limited discounts.

While white card holders get no special privileges, they are shamed by having to stand in a separate line at the cafeteria for lunch. The school operates two lines with separate entrances – one for black and gold cardholders, and another for white cardholders.

Following this publicity, it was also revealed that another school nearby, Cypress High School, had a similar scheme with platinum cards instead of black cards.

Some parents and students at Kennedy High expressed outrage at the scheme. They said the cards embarrass and stigmatize students. They remind students daily of how they stack up against their peers, leading to bullying, harassment and intimidation.

One 14 year-old told the Register that: “I feel like I’m being bullied because they’re rubbing it in our faces that they’re better than us, and the school isn’t doing anything to stop it.” Another student said that the black and gold cardholders “act like they’re on top of the world. It just makes the rest of us feel worse inside.” A senior student said: “It makes you feel dumb, that you’re being put down by your school.”

A parent said that a school administrator jokingly told female students at an assembly that they should aspire to go to dances with black-card holders instead of white-card holders.

Students with learning disabilities also get white cards. One mother with a son with a learning disability said the cards are a particularly bitter pill to swallow for someone who has little chance of being able to do well on standardised tests.

An Assistant Professor at the University of California Irvine, AnneMarie Conley, said she was “shocked and horrified” at the scheme.

It goes against everything we know about student motivation and what helps students learn in productive ways. If you want a short-term, Band-Aid approach, then you can reward kids with stickers and pizza parties. But if you want to support lifelong learning, there’s absolutely no research to support what they’re doing.

Conley said the three-tiered system causes the most academically vulnerable kids – underprivileged minorities, poor students and English learners – to be stigmatized and reminded daily they are not as successful as their peers.

Girls, minorities, the ones we want to enter science, technology, engineering and math fields – they will decide they just can’t do it, or they’re not going to go to college. The people for whom this program is not working are the ones the school is supposed to be protecting.

The California Department of Education issued a statement saying that any program revealing information about how well a student has performed on state tests is a violation of the student’s privacy and should be terminated.

Within a few days following this statement and complaints by parents and students, the local school district administration terminated the scheme. In a statement it said that it would continue to offer incentives for high performance and would look at other options.

Because we believe having incentives can appropriately motivate students, we will develop another system for them to access the incentives

However, Assistant Professor Conley questioned the whole basis of performance incentives for students:

The district’s policy would only really be effective for the 10 to 15 percent of students who seek out competitive motivation. These students are likely already among the top academic achievers who find motivation even without the help of teachers. For the other students, consequences could include bullying from peers, or students giving up if they continue to struggle.

One blogger with Education Week summed up the experience with colour-coded student ID cards as follows:

If there is a lesson to be learned, it is that the Kennedy High School practice is the reductio ad absurdum of the accountability movement. High-stakes tests will always lead to extremes because of the punitive consequences. We’ve seen this recently in the cheating scandals in schools in Atlanta and in other cities. It will only get worse in ways we cannot imagine.

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