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How California Schools Turned Struggling Students Into Second-Class Citizens

Color-coded student IDs and separate lunch lines ignited controversy in Orange County.

With higher stakes associated with standardized tests than ever before, rewards like a pizza party or an extra school dance are fairly common for students who perform well. But two high schools in Orange County, California have ignited controversy for a rewards program that treated low performers like second-class citizens.

The two schools' questionable motivational tactics involved issuing color-coded student identification cards based on performance on state tests. High-performing students received black cards, the ones in the middle got gold ones, and the lowest-scoring group got white IDs. The schools then awarded discounts and perks around campus to the students with the black and gold cards.

According to The Orange County Register, black cardholders got into home athletic events for free and received "discounts to school dances and at local businesses." Students with gold card were offered more limited discounts. As for white cardholders, they were forced to pay full price for everything and had to stand in a separate, slower lunch line in the cafeteria.

Parents and community members complained that the system, which debuted last year, humiliated kids and unfairly penalized students enrolled in special education programs, or who simply didn't test well. After state education officials concluded that the program is illegal because state test score results are supposed to be confidential, the Anaheim Union School District canceled both schools' programs this week.

Ben Carpenter, the principal of Cypress High, told the Register that because the cards didn't reveal specific scores, the program doesn't violate privacy laws. And, he said, at a time when educators are under pressure to boost scores, schools needed an innovative way to motivate kids. "When testing time came around, you saw teachers who were frustrated because kids didn't care about the tests," said Carpenter. "There was nothing in it for them, other than an intrinsic motivation they may or may not have. The intent of the gold card program was to provide an incentive for all students, to say, 'Hey, there is something in this for me. I can get something out of performing on this exam.'"

White cardholder Nick Linderman told the newspaper that the separate lunch lines meant "the cafeteria runs out of the good food" because the black and gold cardholders "take all the good stuff." The system makes the 14-year-old freshman "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."

Some black cardholders also oppose the system. Kiana Miyamoto, a 16-year-old senior who's a part of Kennedy High School's advanced International Baccalaureate program told the Register that she's seen students harassed as a result of the program. "One IB student said [to a classmate], 'Hey, you're in IB. Anyone who has a white card shouldn't even be in IB,'" she said.

Teachers find themselves in a tough position, because they're held accountable for student performance on state tests, ranked as either good or bad based on their students' scores. But shaming kids for not scoring well on one high-stakes test isn't the best way to promote learning. Incentive programs like this may convince a handful of students to improve their performance, but they do much more to hurt students who aren't already high scorers. It must be pretty terrible to go to school knowing you're visually labeled as one of the dumb kids because of the color of your ID, even if you tried your best on the test and otherwise get good grades. It's worthwhile to reward kids for improving their performance, but there has to be a more positive, less humiliating way to do it.

Photo via (cc) Flickr user sampsyo

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