Tuesday, August 5, 2014

Perverse Practice of Focusing on 'Bubble Students': Malpractice in the Schools

One of the most insidious by-products of the age of testing and accountability is the suggestion that educators should "focus on bubble students" in order to raise a school's test scores. For those who might not know what the term "bubble student" is, in education lingo, the bubble student is the student who has the greatest chance of demonstrating growth or an increase in test scores. Many a scheme has been devised to determine who these students are, and talk to any educational or curricular material salesmen, and you are more than likely going to hear this phrase: "Our materials will help you identify those students who have the greatest chance of demonstrating growth, and we give you the materials to focus on them."

Is there not anyone else who feels a bit of disgust at this sleazy sales pitch and idea? Basically, the suggestion is this: you can identify those kids who have the greatest chance of demonstrating higher test scores and focus on them. This also implies that "less focus" will be on other students for whom gains will be harder and more resource-intensive. Whatever happened to teaching "all students?

We have our testing and accountability culture to thank for this perversion. Because test scores become the ultimate indicator of quality, any strategy is on the table, including ignoring some students in order to help those who show the greatest promise of demonstrating growth. If I were a parent of a lower-ability student or a gifted student, who are usually likely victims of "bubble-student" strategies, I would hire a lawyer immediately. There's a pretty good chance that behind the use of such talk is the idea that the school is going to purposefully focus on "money students", that is, students who have the greatest chance of producing test scores, and neglect those at the very bottom and the very top who aren't going to demonstrate the greatest test score gains.

The practice of focusing on "bubble students" or "money students" as its also called is unethical and perverse. No one would suggest to a physician that he only treat those who have the greatest chance of healing. I certainly don't want a mechanic who only takes the easiest cases of repair, and writes the others off as too resource intensive. Any suggestion of this strategy for raising test scores has zero place in schools.

The practice of focusing on bubble students is a direct consequence of this fetishization and idolization of tests present in education today. Make test scores the ultimate goal, and you get perverse educational practices like focusing on the bubble students and ignoring other students because they are less likely to "bring the gains desired." By the way, any sales person who uses that in pitching his products, has immediately lost a sale.


  1. I'm not sure your analogy to physicians is entirely accurate. Wouldn't it be more like if a hospital had the doctors focus only on the patients who would make the hospital look the best? Those with the right balance of ease of care and highest cost of care?

    Other than that little thing, this is a great post. I was just talking with a friend about how the focus is often so much on helping averages students that we are failing to help those with lower or higher abilities. In the long run, it is only going to hurt our society.

    1. I would agree. The hospital analogy works better. I did see a study on merit pay somewhere though involving physicians I think. Nonetheless, high stakes testing is continuing to warp our education system and make it do things it should not do.