The next 3 posts will address the debate over standardized testing. This week simply opens the issue with general comments. Next week’s post will deal with statistics and anecdotes. The final post will illustrate alternative assessments & varied means of implementing these tests.
Each year, NYS teachers are evaluated for their effectiveness. 60% of this evaluation comes from multiple classroom observations, performed by multiple administrators in the teacher’s school. 40% of each teacher’s score comes from a mix of standardized exams taken once a year by their students. This year, I was evaluated on my teaching methods and lesson preparation (60%) of my score. I received an average score of “Highly Effective”, which means I am within the top 30% of teachers in terms of classroom instruction.
While many people decry the use of observations at all, I have found them to be useful in improving my skills as teacher. I began my first year with completely Ineffective observations. My tough administrator observed, however, that I had a great rapport with even the most hardened students in my class. She told me to begin with my interpersonal relationships, and that my content and skill instruction will begin over time. Clearly, this advice worked.
Moreover, observations work when the observer is knowledgeable about content, instructional skills, and the students that are being taught. The idea is for the expert observer to provide feedback to the teacher, with suggestions on how to implement the feedback in specific ways. Observations should never be an “aha! Got cha! You’re FIRED!” type of situation. From their first day to their last, a dedicated teacher will strive to get better at their job.
While typically I made no negative allowance for them, the students I teach are English Language Learners and Students With Disabilities. I teach them the same rigorous content that I teach any other student, I just need to be more cognizant of their learning profiles. Babying or making excuses for a student based upon disability or culture is called “soft bigotry” and does no one any favors. While it will require additional posts to quantify a “learning profile,” it simply means that each student learns differently. For more information immediately, consider Robert Gardner’s concepts of Multiple Intelligences:
Having said that, the reality is that my students traditionally perform abysmally on standardized exams. Problematically (perhaps selfishly) the remaining 40% of my evaluation score is how students fare on standardized final exams. This group of students does not do well on 3+ hour back-to-back exams that summarize their entire year of learning on how they are performing on one particular day. They receive a pittance of “accommodations” on exams, that are not specialized to their individual learning profiles. In order to be “highly effective”, I have to demonstrate my knowledge of each students’ individual learning profile and utilize this knowledge in my instruction. Why then, is this not the case in exams?
The purpose of assessments (aka tests) is to inform the teacher about specific content that needs to be taught again, and what the students retained. Specific content refers to examples such as: the surface area of polynomials; the causes of World War 2; an author’s intentions in an argumentative essay; the processes involved with Photosynthesis. If schools want a holistic requirement that resembles how teachers are evaluated, students should have to submit a portfolio with speaking, reading, research and writing components. This method of evaluation is used in high-level academics, as well as actual jobs in career fields. This type of work takes time, planning, and consultation. Moreover, it allows all students a chance to perform work relevant to their interests, as well as explore content outside of the mandated curricula of public schooling.
Students – especially those requiring additional academic modifications – are simply not accurately evaluated over a 3+ hour battery exam. My students contend with both the normal level of anxiety when taking said exams, but also, has to deal with additional cognitive efforts that correlate to being a language learner or having a disability. Those students whose learning profiles are keyed into taking tests will do well. Those students who may have talents elsewhere are simply deemed less effective a student than others.
In New York, it doesn’t matter how talented you are in music, art, vocational skills, etc. If you can’t pass a single exam on that particular day, you fail the course. In other words, a lengthy exam manipulates courses that should be exploratory and skill-developing into test prep classes that are dissuaded from focusing on content outside of what is weighed most heavily on exams. Students may be able to regurgitate the definitions of Communism and Capitalism, but they are not afforded an opportunity to evaluate the success of these economic systems in influencing world history.
Outside of the financial benefits to teachers being considered “highly effective,” (something which itself is controversial) we are robbing our students of the enriching experiences that they have in exploring rich academic content. Our students are being told that unless a content, skill, or particular perspective will get them points on an exam, that aspect is a waste of their time.
Logically, how foolish is it to expect a student to be graded solely on three hours, when their academic career spans over a decade? Even our most elite athletes lose games. Michael Jordan has six championship rings, but even he lost important games. There may be chart-topping musicians, beloved by everyone. But, even they have made bad songs. Elvis Presley is one of the most successful musicians in history, but he has songs people hate (or worse, were stolen from others in the name of “success”) We may have immensely successful investors worth billions, but even they have made bad investments. Why, then, should we expect the evaluation of students or teachers to rely so heavily on information that is meant to encourage further instruction, rather than an end-all, be-all conclusion?