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State Panelists Partly Blame Culture of High-Stakes Testing for School-to-Prison Pipeline

Why does the U.S. have the highest rate of incarcerated youth when compared to similarly developed nations?

A new report from the Indiana Advisory Committee to the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights based on a series of panel discussions from earlier last year seeks to answer this question—and as you might suspect, the answer is not that U.S. children are inherently more unruly than their international peers.

Rather, the report paints a sordid picture of an increasing number of students—predominantly minorities—born to low-income families without an increasing number of educational support services to match.

Thanks to outdated disciplinary systems based on "zero tolerance policies," children educated in low-income areas are far more likely to be removed from learning by being either suspended or even expelled for minor disciplinary infractions. These students, oftentimes victims of trauma who would benefit from support services that address their complex needs, become victims once again as they enter the school-to-prison-pipeline.

The school-to-prison-pipeline is a phenomenon that education advocates and scholars are becoming more and more aware of as a problem that disproportionately affects disadvantaged minority and disabled students.

Not only is it a devastating assault on educational opportunities for groups of students, it’s also an unnecessary financial burden to the average taxpayer.

The report says it was determined "in a recent study that Indiana taxpayers pay $212.13 per day, or $77,427.00 per year, to confine a single young person."

Notably these figures are just for a young person, who is more likely to grow up and become an adult who will have further experiences with incarceration. Overall, the report claims that youth incarceration can long-term add up to costing as much as $21,470,000,000.

During the panel discussions, Cynthia Jackson, the Positive Discipline Coordinator of the Indianapolis Public School system, described how Indiana’s disadvantaged students are more likely to be disciplined despite making up less of the state’s student population.

Of "7,863 incidences of suspension...79% of those students were African American, although [the] district population of African American is 50%. Of that population, a third of the students had disabilities, although within [the] district 20% of [the] students have [Individual Development Plans] with disabilities, so we have some disproportionally issues within our district," she said, according to the report.

This disproportionate discipline directly affects the way these students are able to succeed. Simply put, students can’t learn if they’re not in class.

The report paints a bleak picture of academic outcomes for Indiana’s black males.

"66% of black children," the report says, "live in at or below federal poverty levels,..only 24.88% of Indiana’s black males are able to pass both the language arts and math portions of the state standardized test (ISTEP)... Indiana ranks as one of the 10 worst states in terms of black males' four-year high school graduation rates, and national suspension and expulsion rates for black males is more than three times the rate of white males."

Not even the youngest of black learners are exempt from these odds, said Barbara Bolling-Williams, State President for the NAACP Indiana State Conference, in the report.

"What else are they but babies? Black children represent 18% of the preschool population yet they represent 48% of the babies receiving more than one out of school suspension," she said.

Even attempts to mitigate the problems, the report says, are faulty. Seemingly well-intentioned efforts to ensure that disciplined students continue to receive alternative education are potentially doing more harm than good. Known as "alternative schools" or "alt-schools," "these options may provide alternative education for students who struggle academically and behaviorally in traditional schools, [but] several panelists expressed concern about how they may feed the school-to-prison pipeline," the report said.

Further, though it is a frequent occurrence for consistently disciplined students to be referred to homeschooling instead, the report says this exacerbates the problem because "there is currently no way to verify whether or not these children are receiving equivalent education" at home.

Does High-Stakes Testing Contribute to the Problem?

In an interesting segment of the report, the panelists agree that a high-stakes testing culture in Indiana directly contributes to the school-to-prison pipeline.

"...high stakes testing contributes to the school-to-prison pipeline phenomenon in that it inhibits genuine teacher-student relationships, diverts attention and resources away from students' social-emotional needs, and may negatively impact school discipline procedures," the report says.

"These accountability requirements shift our thinking away from what is in the best interest of students to what is necessary to meet high stakes accountability requirements and avoid state takeover," testified one principal during the discussion.

Fortunately, after emphasis on standardized testing reached a fever pitch, the passage of the Every Student Succeeds Act seeks to reduce testing once and for all by finally identifying what a meaningful assessment is through its search for the next generation of assessments.

Other Ways to Reduce Entry into the Pipeline

Aside from reducing emphasis on standardized testing, the panelists make several other suggestions for how the state can mitigate the effects of the school-to-prison pipeline. These recommendations include:

  • implicit-bias and cultural-sensitivity training for teachers
  • diversifying the teaching workforce by adding more teachers of color
  • more funding for classroom management and alternatives to exclusionary discipline
  • a switch to restorative justice models of discipline
  • introducing Positive Behavioral Intervention and Support (PBIS) programs
  • employing the assistance of psychologists, social workers, and community organizations as opposed to law enforcement
  • uniform licensing requirements for police officers working in schools
  • a joint task force created by the Department of Education to study "disparities in educational outcomes and juvenile justice involvement on the basis of race, color, disability status, and other federally protected categories"

Read the full report.

Nicole Gorman, Senior Education World Contributor


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