Standardization kills hope for differentiation.

Juan was a former English Language Learner I served and a hard worker.  He arrived with extremely limited prior schooling but worked hard in Pre-Algebra, his assessments and instruction were differentiated and he made significant growth in just a year.  Then came Algebra I.  He needed this to graduate.  His teacher kindly tutored him after school, but would simply say “I have to move on” when Juan was lost.  Teachers often find it hard to differentiate instruction with the PARCC tests looming over their heads.

At the end of the year, the high-stakes standardized test predictably had “stuff I had never seen” for Juan and no test items reflected the progress he had made in just two short years.  How could we expect a one-size-fits-all approach to assessment?  To differentiate instruction is fine, but not if we then refuse to differentiate assessment as well.

Juan had worked so hard and grown so much, but wasn’t able to show it on an all-important high-stakes test, so he felt nothing he learned mattered.   Juan was 16, and he just gave up.  He figured he could help his family more if he got a job.

“If you want to see students rapidly become hopeless failure acceptors, just set up an environment in which they actually learn a great deal but still receive low grades.” -Rick Stiggins

Ever felt like giving up?  So many of our children do.  Latino males, many of whom are English Language Learners, have the highest drop-out rates in the nation: almost 1 in 5.

Why?  There are many factors including shortcomings in Immersion and our national move away from bilingual education, or even just the pressures inherent in learning another language.

Nation-wide all children who require differentiated curriculum to succeed in school run into a tough obstacle: standardization.  There is nothing wrong with some degree of standardization, but not when it overshadows compassionate differentiation.

For teachers, we feel the very real pressure to increase “rigor.”  High-stakes tests don’t actually require us to teach to the test for the majority and leave the minority behind -that’s not written in the handbook.  Even so, in busy classrooms, when an ELL is the only one who doesn’t get it, and it’s time to move on (the standardized curriculum-map says so)…content-area teachers move on.  No time to differentiate, we have to standardize.  Our curriculum must be vertically, horizontally, and otherwise aligned in every direction to make sure we are all learning the same thing.

Every direction except towards where our children are at.   Otherwise, kids won’t be ready for PARCC, right?

High-stakes tests create an over-emphasis on meeting benchmarks.  This can be anxiety-producing,  which exaggerates gaps in achievement.  Children who are not traditionally academic or struggle in core classes will have been burned by past test experiences and expect to fail.  This creates negative washback and test anxiety, factors that can bias tests against lower-achieving students.   In a 2002 article on the brilliant Assessment for Learning movement, Rick Stiggins explained, “These students will see both the new high standards and the demand for higher test scores as unattainable for them, and they will give up in hopelessness.”

Our nation blows out of proportion the need for standardization of content, curriculum, standards or goals for learning, and high-stakes tests.  This can feel overwhelming for children who learn at a different pace or need additional scaffolding.  Working with children who require differentiated curriculum can leave teachers feeling like they are under the gun.

Working with different children in a standardized world can feel hopeless.

I’m starting year 10 in English as a Second Language educator, and I have to really dig-deep to find hope.



Published by

Claire Walter

I am an ESL teacher and I promote differentiated, compassionate instruction and assessment for English Language Learners.

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