Posted in Indiana, teacher morale, TeachersSpeakingOut, Testing

Testing: Who is Advocating for the Students?

The following was sent to me from a third grade teacher in Indiana. She asked to remain anonymous for several reasons…the main one being fear of retribution. Indiana teachers are no longer protected by seniority and, while this teacher has many years of high quality service with good evaluations, the fear is real, and understandable.

We have been communicating through email for some time. One interesting piece of information — this teacher works in a high income area. In an email to her last week, I mentioned that her students would probably do better than students who came from low income families because of the strong correlation between poverty and achievement.

Here are some of her thoughts about ISTEP and the way her school and school system dealt with it.

NOTE: I’ve heavily edited this to prevent the identification of the teacher, school or school system. It’s a long post, but well worth the time to understand just what is actually happening in our schools. Of course…I’ve made some comments!

We start with the fact that the people who make the tests obviously don’t understand child development. Third graders are 8 and 9 year old children…many of whom are just learning to manipulate abstract concepts.

Stu,

I have been barraging our local building administrators with my serious concerns about not only the technical issues with the testing environment, but also the logistics of presenting multi step math problems, some of which include graphs, charts, tables, diagrams, etc, on a computer screen. We/I teach a lot using technology tools, but I also provide a paper version of most things and encourage the problem solving skills, many of which involve dissecting the problem on paper, and utilizing the problem solving steps we’ve adopted as a school. In other words, I encourage students, who are still learning problem solving strategies, to interact with what’s on the paper. I tell kids to draw on the aforementioned presentation types to help them solve. Students can’t do this when the entire problem is presented on a computer monitor. And there was definitely not enough time for them to reproduce these details accurately enough to be useable on paper in most instances.

  • I saw kids using their finger on the screen to help make sense of what was being presented.
  • I saw kids trying to reproduce and entire graph on paper so they could dissect the meaning…not something doable or really practical anyway, especially with the time limits given.
  • I saw kids using their hands in the air to try to make sense of the measurement concepts being presented.

It’s completely obvious that money is behind this trend and it is not what’s best for kids, and doesn’t allow them to show the ‘skills’ they have actually accumulated or mastered during the year. It’s also a clear trend that understanding the pitfalls of the so called ‘technology enhanced problems’ goes beyond assessing skills, but more closely seems like an IQ test, or a test in which the test taker needs to be able to be ‘in the mind’ of the test maker in order to correctly attack the problem.

Administrators are in a no-win situation…teachers are in a no-win situation…students are in a no-win situation…and all because tests come to the “market” before they’re ready, before schools and school systems have the technological capacity to deal with them, and before they have been adequately tested. The “market” has come to rule in education…profit is the goal, not student learning. Assessment is now a big business that drives everything about public education. It’s wrong…and it’s not good for children.

I’m so furious and am sharing it with whomever will listen or is in a better place than I to pass on the concerns. I was given the go ahead to communicate with our district testing coordinator, and I did. After carefully documenting all the technical issues I experienced during testing, so far, I shared them with him, along with my thoughts…which were broadly advocating for paper pencil…at least for math. In just one of the four practice tests we were required to give, I personally documented 19 test stoppages due to technical issues alone. And let me tell you, even with additional proctors, it’s not easy to read the test script, solve technical issues, document technical issues, and then manage time limits on the test. I needed to be in proximity to my ADHD kids who will just click without processing, and I wasn’t able to do that along with all my other distractions from simply being a proctor. Frankly, I asked our principal if someone could be a proctor, so I could hover over and around certain kids who simply will not be as focused on a test presented on a computer screen and can just click to get it done when it’s challenging, but I think there was some concern that this may be some sort of testing procedure violation. The district’s test coordinator told me in an email that this was a ‘Broken Test’ in his view. Yet today, we received an email with the canned district message that the district and CTB were totally prepared for the online test and were justified giving it. It was clear to me that they’d heard a lot of negative feedback and wanted to tell everyone to just accept it because ‘we say you need to.’ The email also stated that the district did not have a choice to give paper pencil, even though we were told they were available in the district for use. I believe this again is simply a canned statement to diffuse the outcry from teachers.

I do not hold our local building administration accountable in any way for this testing nightmare, but I do put it on them to share their disgust, which I don’t think they do…at least not to my satisfaction. I understand the futility that comes along with state mandates and district decisions, but who is advocating for the students? The only people in my immediate realm that can share my frustration and disservice to children, are the building administrators. Obviously, the political process has avenues, but unless administrators and districts are raising the seriousness of the concerns, we will be simply condoning more of the same. [emphasis added]

Through her questions below my teacher friend is basically describing what’s happening in the real world. Teachers are leaving the profession. Fewer college students are going into education. States are lowering standards for entrance to the teaching profession, and legislatures are making teaching a lower paid, less secure job. Is this how we attract the best and brightest to one of our nation’s most important jobs?

Much of my concern is for lower achieving schools and not my personal classroom. Generally, my kids did well, but would have done better with a reasonable paper pencil test. The thought of docking a teacher’s pay based on the outcomes of tests which are clearly technically and, in my opinion, functionally flawed in their current presentation, should be a scary concept to all the stakeholders. The negative impact on students attending lower achieving schools would obviously be magnified because these students are even less adept at the technological presentation…putting them at even a more unfair position to succeed. Will it be up to administrators to decide what data they use to dock a teacher’s pay? Will the disadvantages I just described figure into the equation? I think if we don’t address these issues, we will be faced with a ‘teacher exodus’…which from what I hear from colleges and universities is already happening based on enrollment. This ‘teacher exodus’ will further devalue the position of teachers because the replacements may not be in it for the ‘love of the job’, but because they simply need a job.

There are many factors that lead to a student’s level of achievement. Most of them come from outside of the classroom, but about 15% of a student’s achievement gains can be attributed to the classroom teacher. If the teacher is saddled with a large number of students, students with special learning problems, or many students with behavior issues, the teacher’s effectiveness will be diminished. Judging a teacher based on student test scores is an invalid use of student achievement tests. Student achievement tests, once they are deemed reliable and valid, should be used for measuring student achievement, period.

This leads to another serious concern I have about how well the classes are balanced at the start of a school year. Being a good classroom manager has consistently gotten me more difficult behaviors through the years. Some administrators I’ve worked under put little effort into making well-balanced classrooms. This is a critical component to consider, if teachers are going to have their pay docked based on test outcomes. I typically get more difficult students because I’m a good classroom manager, but it makes the job more difficult, and unbalanced when compared to other teachers at times. So would it be fair to compare my test results with other teachers, or how about a teacher who consistently gets a better behaved classroom because they are a poor classroom manager? Is this fair in a ‘performance based’ salary scale? Teachers who do a good job should not be rewarded with a more difficult class. Classroom behavior issues have a huge impact on classroom success, and I think I could write a book on the significance of a well-balanced class, but I’m guessing lawmakers are not making this an emphasis in their quest to link scores and teacher performance.

We’re losing good teachers…who will replace them?

I was so frustrated when I left school, after only having finished the first four days of nine of round two of ISTEP, that I knew I need to just get away from the building. It’s a sad scenario because I still love the part of my job that is teaching and working with young children, but the testing and culture are killing the profession and will ultimately devalue the job.

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Author:

Retired after 35 years in public education.