SOMETHING IS DISTURBINGLY TRUE
March 26, 2012
The New York State Education Department and the teachers' unions reached an agreement, more or less. This agreement allows the state to use student test scores to evaluate teacher performance. That agreement was brought to a conclusion after the New York State Governor warned the parities that if they did not come to an agreement, he would impose his own solution. Further, the school districts were told that they would lose future state aid if they did not immediately implement the agreement. It now appears, that the reason for this urgency was to secure $700 million promised to the state by the Federal Administration in Washington in conjunction with the Federal Race to the Top Program.
The newly approved New York State Education Department agreement states "Teachers rated ineffective on student performance based on objective student testing must be rated ineffective overall". And two years of ineffective ratings, would require that the teacher be discharged on the basis of student testing, regardless of the capabilities of the learners tested. This makes about as much sense as using the same standard to rate the success rate of physicians, in the words of a former graduate student of mine... "rating the survival rate of patients of dermatologists with those of cancer specialists."
The major concern of this article however, is not the effect on a teacher's tenure, but rather, the disturbing effect on the students and their opportunity for learning. And that is the major thrust of the balance of this piece.
There appears to be some policy decision makers at high levels, who are obsessed with test scores. But, most testing experts believe that the methods for calculating teachers' assumed "value-added" qualities—that is, their abilities to produce higher test scores year after year—are inaccurate, unstable, and unreliable. For example, teachers in affluent suburbs are likelier to get higher value-added scores than teachers of students with disabilities, students learning English, and students from poverty or from less then a supportive home environment. All too often, the rise or fall of test scores, are reflected in the composition of the classroom, which are factors beyond the teachers' control... And NOT the quality of the teacher. For example, a teacher who is rated effective one year may well be ineffective the next year, depending on which students are assigned to his or her classroom. And that statement is irrefutable.
This new evaluation system is rooted in the idea that one can draw a straight line from a teacher's instruction to a student's performance. If only that were so. However, years of experience and definitive research have clearly shown that conclusion to be baseless, and the height of naivety. The reality is, there are so many core variables in a student's background and life style that directly impact their learning style. Point in fact, we know that students' standardized test scores are correlated with their economic standing. Joe Nocera recently pointed out in an op-ed New York Times article (April 25, 2011): "Going back to the famous Coleman report in the 1960's, social scientists have contended — and unquestionably proved — that students' socioeconomic backgrounds vastly outweigh what goes on in the school as factors in determining how much they learn."
The job of any teacher is first and foremost, to promote the highest level of learning achievement within each child. Student learning should emphasize applied learning and thinking skills, in addition to, declarative knowledge and basic skills. Ideally, students should be able to develop the skills necessary to take what they have learned and apply this knowledge in a variety of real life situations. In this sense, teachers are promoting authentic learning within their classrooms. Recently, however, high-stakes testing procedures seem to interfere with these goals. This is a matter of grave concern. Recently, we have seen an increased emphasis upon results being used to make judgements about teachers rather than on the diagnostic learning needs and growth of individual students. Standardized testing seems to be the word of the day.
In our schools today, as aligned and in accordance with the State mandated requirements, the time given to standardized testing seems to be spinning out of control. The time taken, out of classroom teaching time, just to administer required tests is a matter of considerable concern. For example, the first week in a typical third grade classroom, third grades have three major standardized tests, taking most of the teaching time for that week. What a "turnoff" to school for the typical 8 or 9 year old child who is so looking forward to third grade and a new school year.
Measuring, assessing, processing, accounting, and evaluating, seems to be in the education lexicon this day and age. One must ask, "But, what about teaching?"
Recently, I was visiting one of our very fine western New York public schools. In the course of the visit, I had a conversation with several students from the middle school and the high school. One of the students commented, "You know, it used to be so enjoyable and exciting to learn so many new things every day. Everyday was a great learning experience." And then, the students all chimed in with these words "Now, school has lost the awesome excitement of learning, with all the different kinds of tests we take, day in and day out." What a sad commentary from our students that they felt the need to express! Why, and how, has all this come about?
It used to be, formative assessment was employed by teachers during the learning process in order to modify teaching and learning activities so to improve student attainment. It typically involves qualitative feedback, rather than scores. Further, is serves as a diagnostic tool to be used to guide teaching reinforcement and procedural activities for the benefit of the class and the individual student. By contrast, summative assessment seeks to monitor educational outcomes, often for purposes of assigning grades and external accountability. It used to be that formative testing was continuously ongoing, whereas summative testing was periodic, typically at the end of a unit or at the end of a semester. Today, by contrast, the reverse seems to be true, summative testing seems to be continuously ongoing, and formative testing? ..well, if one can get to it.
It is patently clear, there are many unique factors which impact the learning curve of each child. In this article, we have only touched the "tip of the iceberg" in that regard. Our major concern here, at this point in my professional life after 61 years in education, is the serious detrimental impact this State Department Agreement will have on the value added qualities of excellence in teaching. This Agreement cannot help but seriously detract and imperil that which is most beneficial in the educational process for EACH child. That process is... to meet the distinct and differentiated needs of each child right where that student is, in her or his unique growth and developmental stage. To do less, or to be deterred from doing what we know is right educationally....is less than honest with the parents, and most of all, is unfair to the child! And that is what is so DISTURBINGLY TRUE.