Mismatched Assumptions: Motivation, Grit, and High-Stakes Testing

Since the onset of No Child Left Behind over a decade ago, a lynchpin of accountability formulas for U.S. schools has included some form of a state-mandated exam. Accountability policies have utilized standardized tests as the basis of decisions that determine progression through grade levels, access to higher education, progress in achievement, and resource allocation to schools (Darling-Hammond, 2003). Considering the predominance of high-stakes exams in the current ESSA educational policy environment, a promising avenue of discussion lies in marshaling psychological research to conceptualize how grit or resiliency may or may not interact with high-stakes exams. In this chapter we discuss the (in)adequacy of the current testing and accountability environment for stimulating student success, and marshal established psychological research to consider the paradigm of assessment beyond the uneasy dichotomy that currently pits assessment as a technical exercise incentivizing the measurement of cognitive abilities versus assessment as a potential disincentive to learners’ (especially students of color) academic persistence and success.

Vasquez Heilig, J., Marachi, R., & Cruz, D. (2016). Mismatched Assumptions: Motivation, Grit, and High-Stakes Testing. In S. Nichols (Ed.), Educational Policies and Youth in the 21st Century: Problems, Potential, and Progress, (pp. 145-157).  Charlotte, NC: Information Age Publishing.

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We discuss these issues in the book edited by Sharon Nichols entitled Educational Policies and Youth in the 21st Century: Problems, Potential, and Progress. In the chapter “Mismatched Assumptions: Motivation, Grit, and High-Stakes Testing”  we discuss it is profoundly problematic to link underperformance on tests to “grit, growth mindset” or effort-based remedies when the core assessments being administered fail to meet basic standards for testing and accountability. Many of the new, experimental computerized assessments administered to millions of children in “field” tests have been fraught with technological user-access barriers (Marachi, 2015; Rasmussen, 2015; Furman, 2015). As discussed in this chapter, grit and high-stakes tests should be understood within the current context of poverty and other structural factors, the fact that failure rates have arbitrarily been set to fail a majority of students, and the resulting disengagement, frustration, anger, stress, and feelings of despair from “learned hopelessness.”  Is it fair or just for millions of students of color to fail an unfair state-mandated test, despite working hard in the classroom, and this failure be blamed on a lack of grit rather than the real issue— the structure and scoring of unreliable and un-validated tests?

The prevailing theory of action behind the exam requirements and accountability movement is that schools and students held accountable to these measures will automatically increase educational output due to the accountability pressure. The assumption inherent in these policies is that when students and educators are faced with the pressure of examinations, they will simply try harder. Pressure to improve test scores is assumed to produce gains in student achievement as schools work to improve their instruction for low‐achieving students (Vasquez Heilig & Darling-Hammond, 2008).

Despite two decades of high-stakes testing linked to accountability formulas, the U.S. has not closed achievement gaps. At the miniscule rate that the gaps are closing under NCLB, it would take 80 more years for the achievement gaps to close (Reardon, Greenberg, Kalogrides, Shores, & Valentino, 2012) A possible explanation for the stagnant gaps may be that assumptions about human behavior based on test-based accountability systems fundamentally ignore decades of research on human development and motivation. 

High-stakes Testing and Adversity

Current research investigations have considered student achievement in the midst of testing (Vasquez Heilig, Young & Williams, 2012), but,it is also necessary understand how high-stakes testing may impact student’s psychosocial well-being. Understanding whether and how high-stakes examinations diminish achievement motivation is a hypothesis that runs contrary to the prevailing theory of motivation underlying No Child Left Behind and subsequent high-stakes testing policies. However, the lack of improvement of student success in the midst of accountability warrants this careful examination as several prominent policy reports have documented the detrimental impacts of high-stakes testing pressures on youth. For example, Holbein and Ladd (2015) explored how high stakes accountability pressures influenced “non-achievement student behaviors” and conclude the following:

Accountability pressure has the unintended effect… of increasing the number of student misbehaviors such as suspensions, fights, and offenses reportable to law enforcement. Further, this negative response is most pronounced among minorities and low performing students, who are most likely to be left behind. (Holbein & Ladd, 2015, p. iii)

Earlier research also documented the harms of overreliance on accountability-based systems. In “Raising Standards or Raising Barriers? McNeil and Valenzuela wrote,

Those who promote state systems of standardized testing claim that these systems raise the quality of education and do so in ways that are measurable and generalizable. They attribute low test scores to management’s failure to direct its “lowest level” employees (i.e., the teachers) to induce achievement in students. In Texas, the remedy to this situation has been to create a management system that will change behavior, particularly the behavior of teachers, through increased accountability. The means of holding teachers and administrators accountable is the average scores of each school’s children on the state’s standardized test, the Texas Assessment of Academic Skills, or TAAS… this over-reliance on test scores has caused a decline in educational quality for those students who have the greatest educational need.”… (McNeil and Valenzuela, 2001, p. 2)

In a 2010 report, Advancement Project outlined data from the intersections of high-stakes testing and “zero-tolerance” policies highlighting the double-hit of harmful policies that funnel youth into the school-to-prison pipeline.

Perhaps more important is the damage done by high-stakes testing to the student experience in school. Not only do formulaic, test-driven reforms neglect the important role schools have to play in helping students become well-rounded citizens, they also turn school into a much less engaging, even hostile, place for youth by eliminating the components of education they find most interesting. Additionally, the emphasis placed on test results above all other priorities has an alienating and dehumanizing effect on young people, who resent being viewed and treated as little more than test scores…The effects can accumulate even more when additional consequences are attached to the tests. For example, there is a long record of research demonstrating the consistent association of high-stakes exit exams with decreased graduation rates and increased dropout rates. Additionally, the results from standardized tests are often used to retain students in grade. Yet, grade retention has been shown to be the greatest predictor of student dropout. (Advancement Project, 2010, p. 5)

Researchers have argued that resilience is the process (Olsson, 2003) of overcoming the negative effect of risk exposure, coping successfully with traumatic experiences, and avoiding the negative trajectories associate with those risks (Masten & Powell, 2003). Considering the predominance of high-stakes exams in the current educational policy environment, a promising avenue of discussion lies in marshaling psychological research to conceptualize how grit or resiliency may or may not interact with high-stakes exams. In this chapter we discuss the (in)adequacy of the current testing and accountability environment for stimulating student success, and marshal established psychological research to consider the paradigm of assessment beyond the uneasy dichotomy that currently pits assessment as a technical exercise incentivizing the enhancement of cognitive abilities versus assessment as a potential disincentive to learners’ academic persistence and success.

Resiliency and Environment

In recent years there has been growing public interest in understanding why some children grow up to be healthy and well-functioning adults despite having to overcome various forms of adversity in their lives. The phenomenon of successful development under high risk conditions is known as “resilience” in the research literature and much research has been devoted to identifying the protective factors and processes that might account for children’s successful outcomes (Masten, 2001). In short, resilience theory seeks to address the strengths that people and systems demonstrate that enable them to rise above adversity.

Emmy Werner, a University of California child psychologist, conducted a groundbreaking resiliency study in the early 1990s. Werner followed a group of Hawaiian students into adulthood (1955-1986) while monitoring the impact of a variety of biological and psychosocial risk factors, stressful life events, and protective factors on their development (Werner, 1992). She found that about one third of the students who were affected by conditions of “risk” escaped to adulthood without much permanent damage. Werner noted that children who emerged from the risk conditions had at least one person who accepted them as they were such as, teachers, counselors, and other adults who served as role models.

Frequently, resilience studies focus on specific subgroups that represent marginalized communities and their achievements. From an educational perspective, these are usually students from low-socioeconomic status (SES) and students from communities which are statistically less likely to achieve academically (Moote & Wodarski, 1997). Examples of specific groups who have been studied related to resilience include high-achieving African American middle school children participating in athletics (Hawkins & Mulkey, 2005), Mexican American students from low-socio-economic backgrounds who excelled in high school (Gonzalez & Padilla, 1997), and bilingual Latinos who excelled in academic situations (Hassinger & Plourde, Lee, 2005).

Academic resilience can be defined as “the process and results that are part of the life story of an individual who has been academically successful, despite obstacles that prevent the majority of others with the same background from succeeding”  (Morales, 2008, p. 198). Henderson and Milstein (2003) emphasized the importance of the educational environment in the development of resilience when they said, more than any institution (except the family) schools can provide the environment and conditions that foster resiliency in today’s youth and tomorrow’s adults. Achieving the stated goals of academic and life success for all students and an enthusiastic, motivated, change-oriented staff involves increasing student and staff resiliency.

More recently, an emerging area of research that intersects many related research fields overlapping with resilience is in social, affective, and educational neuroscience. Immordino-Yang and Damasio (2007) posited in the inaugural article of Mind, Brain & Education that,

The neurobiological evidence suggests that the aspects of cognition that we recruit most heavily in schools, namely learning, attention, memory, decision making, and social functioning, are both profoundly affected by and subsumed within the processes of emotion; we call these aspects emotional thought. Moreover, the evidence from brain-damaged patients suggests the hypothesis that emotion-related processes are required for skills and knowledge to be transferred from the structured school environment to real-world decision making because they provide an emotional rudder to guide judgment and action. Taken together, the evidence we present sketches an account of the neurobiological underpinnings of morality, creativity, and culture, all topics of critical importance to education.” (Immordino-Yang & Damasio, 2007, p.3.)

While there is no single encompassing definition of resilience, numerous authors, both inside and outside the field of education, have developed their own perspectives over the past several decades. In summary, resiliency is characterized as the heightened likelihood of success in school and other life accomplishments despite environmental adversities brought about by early traits, conditions, and experiences (Wang, Haertel, & Walberg, 1994).

You already knew “grit”?

The conceptualization of grit is not new. Stemming from long history of theorizing about the nature of resilience, it has been addressed by researchers, social workers, psychologists, sociologists, educators and many others over the past few decades. More recently, however, the  concept of grit has been discussed as a “hidden power” in student educational success (Tough, 2013) with many using the idea to imply that if American students had more grit would they find more success in a testing and accountability environment. This attribution of responsibility provides an ideal scapegoat for the chronic failures of test-based accountability because if students fail, they might have greater chances to develop grit. And, with all the empowering notions associated with grit (resiliency, efficacy, mastery, growth mindsets), it offers a seemingly positive spin on situations where students actually experience chronic failure. Although an enticing framework, we need to be aware of the potential drawback of taking such a narrow approach. As grit has become popularized in the public narrative, so too have critiques of how it may be (mis)applied.

Discussions of student “grit” that focus on protective, positive factors of success such as wellness, adaptation, protective factors, capacity building, and improvement to emphasize the possible and the belief that things will work, seem to offer an alternative to deficit oriented models of development (Duckworth et al., 2007). However, many would assert that the Grit narrative actually perpetuates a deficit approach since it assumes the responsibility for learning as a character trait located within the child. The ensuing message is that as long as the child works hard and puts forth persistent effort (despite any other hardships they may be enduring), they should/will be able to succeed academically (Gow, 2014)[1]. Although the notion of grit seems proactive, it actually serves as just another way to blame children for their failures rather than their social circumstances or opportunities.

Schwartz (2015) discussed controversies in grit and refers to teachers who have expressed concerns that the grit narrative ignores many of the structural barriers that make it difficult for some children from low-income homes — or those who have learning differences — to succeed in school. She noted that many educators have questioned whether the current definition of grit is more about compliance with predetermined norms in schools settings than about possessing personal determination, particularly amid pressures on academic achievement.

Do High-Stakes tests and Accountability Lead to more Grit?

Despite soaring rhetoric in support of high-stakes tests by policymakers and others, to date, there is a dearth of empirical research detailing the relationships between high-stakes testing and student emotional responses. The initial theory of action underlying testing and accountability was that students would be motivated to try harder when faced with feedback that they have not performed to some standards (Vasquez Heilig & Darling-Hammond, 2008). However, ten years after the nationwide implementation of Texas-style accountability, all students did not reach proficiency and proponents are looking for explanation for why the regime has not performed better.

How a student responds to the experience of challenge or failure will depend on a host of contextual, cognitive, and emotional variables. If school leaders do not create healthy learning conditions that foster success and allow for ‘safe’ experiences of failure, we may well be undermining students’ motivation and exacerbating disparities that already exist in midst of testing. Furthermore, if students are given constant feedback of failure from testing and accountability monikers of failure assigned their school, with a default assumption that it means something about their intelligence (rather than effort), then lessons in ‘grit’, effort, or other attempts to put forth effort may be dismissed as pointless.

Why high-stakes testing and accountability have failed to deliver on their promise is an open question with many possible explanations. Basch (2010) documented extensive evidence from the fields of neuroscience, child development, epidemiology, and public health that highlight health disparities that disproportionately affect educational opportunities and outcomes of youth in urban settings and that significantly contribute to the existence and exacerbation of achievement gaps. Basch provides compelling evidence that unless we address the deep and  systemic health gaps that drive the roots of student functioning and learning, we will likely not see improvements despite the best of intentions to close the “achievement” gaps.

Yes, resiliency and grit matter. However, so too do other critical factors including resources, opportunities for enrichment, social supports, health, and guidance that would strengthen opportunities for youth to succeed despite the odds. The key rests with unlocking how these features come together. We know poverty is a sizable barrier for many (see Biddle this volume). However we also know that a sizable percentage of economically disadvantage children and adolescents overcome this adversity, exhibit competence in the face of economic hardship in their lives and go on to lead highly successful, well-adjusted and productive lives (Werner & Smith, 1982; 1992; 2001). The challenge becomes how best to coordinate economic, social, and psychological opportunities along with resilience building messages that build on student strengths in guiding them to optimal, positive student developmental outcomes.

Waxman’s (2004) review of recent studies provided persuasive evidence of a growing body of research points to the conclusion that students exhibiting academic success have family and peer support, have supportive feedback, and are involved in school life. Conversely, students who exhibit low self-esteem have little parental support and involvement, are not engaged positively with their schools, are not usually motivated to succeed, and do not achieve good academic results. Much discussion among educators has centered on the search for strategies that reduce adversity and advance opportunities for learning. Two major guidelines have received increasing recognition for potentially reducing the risk factors associated with urban life and the achievement gap in urban schools (Williams, 1996). First, schools need to forge better connections with families and the community to support resilience development and student learning. Second, reducing educational segregation within schools and implementing responsive and powerful instructional practices also result in improved student retention, a more positive school climate, and improved academic outcomes (Milstein & Henry, 2008).

Absent addressing the above issues, grit has the potential to be a vehicle for education leaders and policy makers continuing to drive blind focus on tests scores while ignoring health and opportunity gaps. There is no research to support the assumption that high-stakes tests and accountability ratings lead to higher levels of “grit”, perseverance, and/or motivation. Similarly, we have no way of knowing the role “grit” may play in persevering through ongoing test-based experiences. On the contrary, decades of research in the field of educational psychology document the harm of shame-based, competitive, punitive, and/or fear-based learning environments that often coincide with high-stakes testing experiences. Interpretation, context, support, and resources matter in determining how scores will be perceived, what beliefs will result, and what resulting behaviors will be most likely. Thus, future research in the fields of human development and motivation should consider whether widening student success gaps in the future— especially as standards are artificially raised without any corresponding supports to authentically improve student learning or engagement— are due to mismatched assumptions about motivation, grit, and high-stakes testing.

Implications for Educational Policy

Accountability was born in Texas based on a “gut feeling” about how tests and a rating system would impact the motivation of students (Vasquez Heilig, Young & Williams, 2012). Considering decades of research, testing and accountability may not foment grit, academic resiliency, or increase achievement motivation. For the many students who put forth maximum effort, who face ongoing difficulties and limited resources at home, and who may be repeatedly receiving failing scores on these high stakes assessment, we need to acknowledge the possibility that the conditions being created would be ripe for the development of “learned helplessness” that can explain a great deal of academic disengagement among youth. The experience of learned helplessness has been found to strongly relate to depression, poor health, and motivational problems. Individuals who have failed at tasks in the past have a tendency to conclude erroneously that they are incapable of improving their performance in the future (Stipek, 1988). Children experiencing learned helplessness are more likely to fail academic subjects and are less intrinsically motivated than others and students experiencing repeated failures will often in turn give up trying to gain respect or promotion through academic performance (Ramirez, Maldonado, & Martos, 1992). The symptoms of helplessness and uncontrollability, most commonly felt by people who are depressed, are also correlated with the experience of learned helplessness (Maier & Watkins, 2005).

When defining and striving for excellence, it is best to focus on all students. However, our current public educational system fails to meet the needs of many students of underserved communities. This is apparent when we discuss the achievement gap or disparities seen in academic performance between various groups of students. Unfortunately, for many students of marginalized communities, the achievement gap increases until they drop out of school. With the passage of the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB), closing the achievement gap demands that all students learn, stay in school, and meet state standards. In addition, NCLB’s framework of accountability, assessment, and evaluation has become a driving force in education as educators attempt to close the achievement gap that exists between Anglo students and students representing the minority (Fuller, Wright, Gesicki, & Kang, 2007).

According to Horsford (2011), the politicization of education has resulted in a high-stakes accountability culture, and in some cases privatization of public schools that distract efforts from meaningful systemic education reform. Our children have become commodities and a means to an end, rather than an opportunity to improve an educational end. Furthermore, when addressing the achievement gap and the needs of students from marginalized communities educational leaders should seek to address structural and institutional manifestations of exclusion and segregation that permeate administrative structures, policies, processes, and practices (Horsford, 2011). If we focus solely on “grit”, perseverance, and/or motivation and ignore structural realities in policy, by default we maintain racialized hierarchies and inequities in schools and school systems. Educational policy must address school structures and foster school climates and cultures that support school, family, and community relations built on the mutual respect, caring, and trust of communities of color (Horsford, 2011).

Another educational policy solution often discussed is the integration of technology in schools. However, the current policy environment pressed by foundations and the numerous educational technology startups also portends a variety of computer-based assessments aimed at measuring learning and enhancing “college and career.” While user-interface design issues on computerized tests may not currently be at the forefront of concern for policymakers and test developers, future research is warranted to examine user experiences with the interface of the tests (i.e. serious flaws documented by Rasmussen, 2015 for tests administered to over 10 million children in 19 states). Factors to consider include students’ (and teachers’) facility with using the technology as well as potential negative cognitive and affective impacts on their testing experience. If technology is to be integrated into assessment, it must be efficacious and valid. Additionally, educational decisions should not be based one form of test scores, such as a single score on a high-stakes test. Educational progress for all students regardless of their background, will involve the use of multiple forms of assessment data (Valencia, 2011), developing resiliency (Milstein & Henry, 2008; Williams, 1996), and evaluating structural and institutional barriers (Horsford, 2011).

This chapter also suggests important implications for practice. Teachers should communicate to their teacher organizations and other allies the real life lived experiences of students of color with exams. Currently, teacher organizations, foundations and policymakers and other influential organizations have pledged support to Common Core and the high-stakes exams that are married to the standards. However, the lived of experience of students of color in relation to the new gauntlet of Common Core exams it still unknown in the literature, but the potentially deleterious impact of the new regime of exams on students of color is predictable considering the history of standards and testing in the US (Vasquez Heilig & Darling-Hammond, 2008). As a result, teachers should be mindful and communicate to their teacher organizations, local communities, policymakers, researchers and other stakeholders the challenges of handling student motivation in the new Common Core high-stakes test based environment.

In conclusion, it is profoundly problematic to link underperformance on tests to “grit, growth mindset” or effort-based remedies when the core assessments being administered fail to meet basic standards for testing and accountability. Many of the new, experimental computerized assessments administered to millions of children in 2015 “field” tests have been fraught with technological user-access barriers (Marachi, 2015; Rasmussen, 2015; Furman, 2015). As discussed in this chapter, grit and high-stakes tests should be understood within the current context of poverty and other structural factors, the fact that failure rates have arbitrarily been set to fail a majority of students, and the resulting disengagement, frustration, anger, stress, and feelings of despair from “learned hopelessness.”  In conclusion, is it fair or just for millions of students of color to fail an unfair state-mandated test, despite working hard in the classroom, and this failure be blamed on a lack of grit rather than the real issue— the structure and scoring of unreliable and un-validated tests?

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2 comments

  • Pingback: The Benefits of Affirmative Action – The Scroll

  • This statement exactly captures the entire NCLB test-based movement then followed so viciously by an even more punitive RttT along with today’s ESSA goals: “…[an] explanation for the stagnant gaps may be that assumptions about human behavior based on test-based accountability systems fundamentally ignore decades of research on human development and motivation.” There it is.

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