As if to prove my point, a friend of a friend on FaceBook (who we’ll call TM) responded to my post, An Open Letter to Indiana Educators on the Occasion of ISTEP 2014 by saying…
TM: I’ve read this article several times, and I just don’t get it. What’s his point? That he doesn’t like testing? That he doesn’t like to be evaluated? What’s his alternative?
“I JUST DON’T GET IT”
I write my blog for myself. It gives me a place to vent about the abuse and misuse of testing and about the privatization of public education and public educators. It gives me a place to “find my voice.”
I’m a former musician and while I don’t play musical instruments any longer, I still think of myself as a musician at heart. I’m a retired teacher…and for me that means that I’m not employed by a local school system any longer. I still teach a few hours a week as a volunteer at a local elementary school, but I’m no longer earning a living at it. Because of that, I still think of myself as a teacher.
But I’m not a professional writer.
So maybe TM doesn’t “get it” because my post was written poorly. I can accept that. I’ll be the first to admit that my punctuation isn’t always correct…that my wording isn’t always clear…that words are sometimes misspelled…and that I’m more than a bit verbose.
“WHAT’S HIS POINT? THAT HE DOESN’T LIKE TESTING?”
Perhaps what TM doesn’t “get” is how teachers actually feel about the intrusion of testing into the classroom. We’re not talking about one standardized test a year…though, IMHO, even that would be too much in today’s testing environment. It’s the fact that the tests aren’t being used in the way that they were designed. To quote Linda Darling-Hammond in Rise Above the Mark,
The problem we have in this country with testing today is that, number 1 — we’re using the wrong kinds of tests, and number 2 — we’re using the tests in the wrong kinds of ways.
That’s a great summary statement of what’s wrong with the standardized testing mania in the U.S. today.
So, to TM, I answer — I’m not against testing. I don’t hate testing. Teachers use testing all the time. What I’m against is the incorrect and inappropriate use of testing.
Teachers use tests to see if our lessons are effective and if students are learning. Standardized tests were developed to be diagnostic, but that original and somewhat legitimate use has been perverted beyond all recognition. Standardized tests are now used to determine curriculum, rank and retain students, grade and punish schools, and evaluate educators. Tests should not be used for things that they weren’t intended for. As someone once said, that’s like measuring temperature with a teaspoon.
There are so many more issues with testing in the U.S. public schools and I really don’t want to go into all of them in this post. There’s a reason that the topic cloud in the right-hand column of this blog shows that there are nearly 200 posts about testing. I would suggest that you read some of those if you want a deeper understanding of my objections to the way testing is used. Click the link below.
“WHAT’S HIS POINT? THAT HE DOESN’T LIKE TO BE EVALUATED?”
I was paid to teach for 35 years. During that time I was evaluated at least a dozen times. I also served on evaluation committees consisting of teachers and administrators. We worked on developing good evaluation tools for evaluating teachers’ performance. Since I’m a teacher I understand that constructive feedback is important for all learners (and teachers are or ought to be life-long learners). The best evaluations I had were those in which my performance as a teacher was analyzed and evaluated by someone (most often a principal) who understood the act of teaching. The best evaluations were not criticism free, (and not all my evaluations were stellar) but they were filled with comments which made me aware of how I came across as a teacher and how I could improve.
So, again, to TM, — Evaluation helped me grow as an educator…it wasn’t simply a grade on a page. Good evaluations were detailed and substantive…with suggestions and analysis.
Furthermore, standardized test scores are influenced by much more than what goes on in the classroom. There are out of school factors which carry much more weight in the scores of standardized tests than teaching does. The teacher is the most important in-school influence on student learning, but that influence is not as great as are out of school factors. Read Poverty and Potential: Out-of-School Factors and School Success by David C. Berliner, Arizona State University. Using standardized tests to evaluate teachers doesn’t take into consideration all the outside influences which have a greater effect on student achievement than the teacher does.
…and no, VAM is not currently a valid way of incorporating outside factors into a teacher’s evaluation.
“WHAT’S HIS ALTERNATIVE?”
I’m not going to make any assumptions about TM’s motives in asking his questions, however, it’s common for “transformers” (*definition below) to claim that those of us who are against the current test and punish status quo don’t have any alternatives. That’s wrong.
What we don’t have is a large enough platform. The “transformers” own the media and the political system.
The amount of tax revenue redistributed from public schools to private enterprise through charter schools and vouchers is enormous. The amount of money dumped into the support and promotion of charters and private schools by private investors like Bill Gates, the Walton Family Foundation, the Broad Foundation and others, is huge compared to the amount of money teachers and supporters of public education have to spend on the defense of public education.
The “transformers” pay for privately run schools, they invest in politicians who then do their bidding in the executive offices and legislatures of the states and the nation. Teachers don’t have those kinds of resources. Most of us are too busy trying to keep our heads above water in the classroom.
However, let’s just assume that money wasn’t an object and the “transformers” and their minions in state and national government gave me the power to change things. What’s my alternative?
So, once more to TM, here’s what I would do to improve education in the U.S. This includes my preferences for testing and evaluation.
1. Lower class sizes…with the lowest class sizes in the schools where students need the most help. We know that class size matters.
2. Children need a well rounded curriculum. The last few years have seen math and reading push out other subjects like social studies, health, physical education and the arts. Those things, as well as libraries, are being pushed out to a greater degree in the lowest performing schools. If they weren’t important then high performing schools, and elite private schools wouldn’t have them as part of their curriculum. Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel sends his children to the University of Chicago Lab School — the same school that he and Secretary of Education Arne Duncan attended. Take a look at their fine arts program as an example.
3. Good schools need to provide services to their students. Students who live in poverty (and the U.S. has those in abundance — around 23% of our children) need services to counteract the effects of that poverty. Things like full time social workers, school nurses, counselors, and psychologists are essential. If we’re going to allow almost a quarter of our children to live in poverty then we need to support them in the classroom.
4. Public schools need to provide age-appropriate early childhood education. Children in Kindergarten don’t need to take standardized tests. They need to play, to be read to, to engage in physical activity appropriate to their age. Read about developmentally appropriate educational practices for young children at the National Association for the Education of Young Children.
5. Public schools need to be supported. Right now we are one of only three “advanced” nations who spend more money on our wealthy students than our poor students. Instead, we should be investing more money where it’s needed the most.
No more leaky roofs, asbestos-lined bathrooms, or windows that refuse to shut. Students need to be taught in facilities that are well-maintained and show respect for those who work and go to school there.
6. Use tests sparingly and in the manner for which they were developed. You don’t get a blood test to determine if your bone is broken…achievement tests, such as they are, should be used for measuring student achievement. Period. They should not be used to determine student placement. They should not be used to determine the fate of schools. They should not be used to determine the pay of educators. That’s not why they were developed.
Additionally, student achievement can be evaluated in other ways.
Good teacher observation, documentation of student work, and performance-based assessment, all of which involve the direct evaluation of real learning tasks, provide useful material for teachers, parents, and the public. Many nations that do the best in international comparisons, like Finland, use these techniques instead of large-scale standardized testing.
7. Teacher evaluation should be a joint venture between a school’s administration and it’s teachers. Montgomery County (MD) Peer Assistance and Review Program is an example of an evaluation system which works. It was developed and run by professionals. Fortunately it’s being explored and introduced in other places. See:
- Evaluating Teacher Effectiveness: How Teacher Performance Assessments Can Measure and Improve Teaching by Linda Darling-Hammond
8. Fully fund Pre-K through 12 education. There’s no reason for a nation as wealthy as the U.S. to underfunded schools. Where will the money come from? Eliminate most of the standardized tests and all of the money spent on test-prep. Instead of a competition for funds — with winners and losers — like Race to the Top, distribute the $5 billion federal dollars to schools/school systems based on need.
You want more alternatives to obsessive testing and the “transformation” of America’s public schools? Read chapters 21 through 33 of Reign of Error: The Hoax of the Privatization Movement and the Danger to America’s Public Schools by Diane Ravitch.
*transformers – In her book, Reign of Error: The Hoax of the Privatization Movement and the Danger to America’s Public Schools Diane Ravitch says that privatizers and so-called “reformers” don’t actually want to “reform” public education but to “transform it into an entrepreneurial sector of the economy.” She says that corporate executives “believe in transformative change and disruptive innovation” which might work for business (though that is debatable) but not for education. The “reformers,” politicians, pundits and policy makers who seem hell-bent on destroying America’s public schools are “transformers” not reformers.
All who envision a more just, progressive and fair society cannot ignore the battle for our nation’s educational future. Principals fighting for better schools, teachers fighting for better classrooms, students fighting for greater opportunities, parents fighting for a future worthy of their child’s promise: their fight is our fight. We must all join in.