Report Says Zero Tolerance, High-Stakes Testing Funnel Kids into Prison

The Journalism Center on Children and Families published a provocative report From the Advancement Project linking "zero tolerance" and "high-stakes testing" with kids winding up in prison. The group said:

"Researchers believe policymakers are looking in the wrong places for their answers to the cause of this 'crisis.'

'"According to the report, low graduation rates aren’t the problem. Instead they are simply a symptom of the problem. The current education system is not designed for every child to succeed, they assert. Instead, the educational opportunities of young people are threatened by policies that set them up to fail.'

"Both 'zero tolerance' and 'high-stakes testing' have been pinpointed as the two policies that pose the most direct threat to American youth’s educational opportunities. Together they turn schools into hostile and alienating environments and as a result, huge numbers of students are treated as if they are disposable, routinely being pushed out of school and toward the juvenile and criminal justice systems."

The report went on to say that schools have become so tight with police that children are being arrested [PDF] and placed at the doorstep of the prison system for infractions that are often minor:

  • "In Pennsylvania, the number of school-based arrests has almost tripled in just seven years.
  • "In Florida, there were over 21,000 arrests and referrals of students to the state's Department of Juvenile Justice in 2007-2008, and 69% of them were for misdemeanor offenses.
  • "For a large percentage of school-based arrests, it is inconceivable that the student would have been arrested if not for the close relationship between school staff and law enforcement personnel. Nevertheless, because of the increasingly strong ties between schools and law enforcement, perhaps the most 'policed' group in the country right now -- outside of prison and jail inmates -- is public school students.
  • "Arrests in school represent the most direct route into the school-to-prison pipeline, but out-of-school suspensions, expulsions, and referrals to alternative schools also push students out of school and closer to a future in the juvenile and criminal justice systems. The use of these punitive disciplinary measures has risen over time at the national level, and has increased dramatically in many communities. Not coincidentally, that rise has coincided with the passage of NCLB [No Child Left Behind] and other test-driven policies. For example, at the national level, there were almost 250,000 more students suspended out-of-school in 2006-07 than there were just four years earlier, when NCLB was signed into law. During the same timeframe, the number of students expelled across the country increased 15%.
"At the local and state levels, the dramatic expansion of the zero-tolerance approach is even more apparent. For example:

  • "In Chicago Public Schools, under the leadership of then-Chief Executive Officer and current U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, the number of out-of-school suspensions district-wide nearly quadrupled in just six years.
  • "In Texas, over a five-year period, the number of expulsions increased by 23% and the number of out-of-school suspensions increased by 43%. In just one school year, 2007-08, there were over 128,000 referrals of students to alternative disciplinary schools.

Related story ideas

  • What is the connection between suspension/expulsion and criminal activity where you are? Ask juvenile judges and public defenders how many of the kids who come through the system have been thrown out of school.
  • What is the numerical trend for suspensions and expulsions where you are?
  • What offenses get kids kicked out of school?
  • Are more kids being tossed out? Compare the proportion of expulsions, not just the raw numbers.
  • Do some schools eject more than others? Why?
  • Prison system GED classes might be a good place to find stories.
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    Al Tompkins

    Al Tompkins is The Poynter Institute’s senior faculty for broadcasting and online. He has taught thousands of journalists, journalism students and educators in newsrooms around the world.


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