Posted in Darling-Hammond, Evaluations, poverty, Public Ed, Teaching Career, Testing, Valerie Strauss

The Intention of Unintended Consequences

UNINTENDED?

Are the unintended consequences of the overuse and misuse of standardized tests really unintended? The misuse of standardized tests seems designed specifically to “prove” that public schools are “failing” so that “reformers,” both corporate and religious, can continue with the business of privatization.

We know that standardized test scores correlate to the economic level of a school population rather than the quality of their teachers, but “reformers” say that “poverty is just an excuse” (unless of course their favorite charter school discovers that students from high poverty homes score lower on tests. Then it becomes a real factor). “Reformers” demand that education be the driving force behind the fight against poverty. Unfortunately for this approach, we know that the effects of poverty make learning more difficult, and poverty must be eliminated first.

We know that standardized tests, scored by temps with no experience in teaching children, are not a true or complete reflection of a child’s learning.

We know that children learn at different rates and the rigid requirements of “standards” are developmentally inappropriate for many children. The standardized tests based on those standards are misused when they are the basis for teacher evaluations, student promotions, and other high-stakes decisions.

The point of the tests, however, seems to be not the evaluation of student learning, but rather to show that public schools are somehow “failing.” Privatizers seem intent on closing public schools (see here and here), in order to divert public tax dollars to corporate and religious pocketbooks. Apparently “choice” isn’t an option for parents who want to keep their public schools open.

Linda Darling-Hammond said in Rise Above the Mark,

The problem we have with testing in this country today is that…we’re using the wrong kinds of tests, and…we’re using the tests in the wrong kinds of ways.

The use of the “wrong kinds of tests” in “the wrong kinds of ways” have consequences damaging to public education, the teaching profession, and worst of all, our children.

Valerie Strauss posted an article recently by Susan Moore Johnson, an education professor at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. Johnson listed four unintended consequences of high-stakes testing for teacher evaluations.

CONSEQUENCES

Four unintended consequences of using student test scores to evaluate teachers

1. Making It More Difficult to Fill High-Need Teaching Assignments

Teachers’ confidence in VAMS as an evaluation method ultimately depends on whether these measures adequately control for demographic differences among students. Many experts report that VAMS do not yet do so. Although teachers may not have read these scholarly critiques, they generally are not convinced that VAMS are evenhanded. Thus, heavy reliance on VAMS may lead effective teachers in high-need schools and subjects to seek safer assignments, where they won’t risk receiving low, unwarranted VAMS scores.

If teachers are evaluated judged by the high-stakes tests of their students, then it’s reasonable to assume that those teachers who have the choice will choose to work in schools with higher achieving students. This incentivizes teachers to avoid schools with students who need high quality teachers the most…schools with hard to educate students in general, and students who are English language learners or in special education specifically.

I’m reminded of the story of “the worst teacher in New York City” published by the New York Post. The post wrote,

When it comes to teaching math, she’s a zero.

Pascale Mauclair, a tenured, $75,000-a-year sixth-grade teacher in Queens, placed at the bottom of the heap of New York’s schoolteachers, according to rankings released by the Department of Education yesterday.

Mauclair got a cumulative score of zero, with a zero margin of error, for the 2009-10 school year.

The problem with the rating Mauclair received is this

“Mauclair is an ESL teacher, and over the last five years she has had small, self-contained classes of recently arrived immigrants who do not speak English. Her students arrive at different times of the school year, depending upon that date of their family’s migration; consequently, it is not unusual for her students to take the 6th grade exams when they have only been in her class for a matter of a few months.

“The Post gets its share of the blame,” he continued. “It engaged in the calculated effort to destroy the good name of a teacher whose sole crime was her vocation to make a difference in the lives of children. It set out to brutally strip her of her personal dignity, and paraded in public an egregiously false ‘naked’ portrait of her life’s work.”

Why would a teacher who had a choice knowingly set themselves up to be professionally mistreated like this?

2. Discouraging Shared Responsibility for Students

Often teachers within a grade level capitalize on one another’s strengths by regrouping their students for better instruction in each subject. For example, an excellent math teacher will teach math to all students in the grade, while others specialize in their area of expertise. Using VAMS to determine a substantial part of teachers’ evaluations threatens to sidetrack such collaboration by providing a perverse incentive for the most effective teachers to concentrate solely on their assigned roster of students.

I have spent more than 40 years in elementary schools as an intern, student teacher, paraprofessional, classroom teacher, reading specialist, and volunteer…and during all that time I have found that no matter what my position, I could count on my colleagues (and they could count on me) to share their expertise and ideas.

Teaching in a public school must not be a competition. I have shared the responsibility of students’ education by teaching science while another teacher taught social studies, by supplementing classroom reading instruction, by tutoring students, and by diagnosing learning problems. The goal was to give the children the best education we could…as a team, rather than to make sure that my students passed the test with no regard for anyone else.

At the end of every school year we would gather as grade level teams to divide our students up in the most equitable manner possible so that the makeup of the next year’s classrooms was balanced. So-called “teacher accountability based on student test scores” leaves the door open for back room manipulation of class composition. Principals could damage a teacher’s career by packing their classroom with hard to educate students, or provide a favorite teacher with a higher number of high achievers. The possibility for corruption is increased by the importance of the test.

3. Undermining the Promise of Standards-Based Evaluation

Those who recommend using VAMS for personnel decisions often contend that this approach is superior to the “counterfactual”— evaluations conducted by administrators. Admittedly, those evaluations had a poor track record in the past. Recently, however, many districts have adopted sophisticated and informative standards-based assessments. Recent research demonstrates that teachers’ instruction improves in response to standards-based observations and high-quality feedback (e.g., Taylor and Tyler 2012). But how will administrators respond when discrepancies between VAMS and observations arise? If they are uncertain about judging instruction or think that VAMS are more precise than their own professional judgment, value-added scores may unduly influence how principals rate teachers’ instruction.

Education is not an exact science. Teaching is more than standards and test scores. In a recent article for the Houston Chronicle, John Kuhn, wrote,

[Relationships are more important than pedagogy.] If you deliver flawless instruction but haven’t nurtured relationships with your students — even the challenging ones — then you might as well teach to an empty room.

…or let the students sit in front of programmed learning on a computer all day long.

Evaluations must reflect the ability of the teacher to develop relationships with students as well as their ability to teach standards. The interaction between adult and child is an important aspect of education which cannot be reproduced on a computer.

4. Generating Dissatisfaction and Turnover Among Teachers

Those who promote the use of VAMS to make decisions about rehiring, firing, or awarding tenure often suggest that the best teachers will be more satisfied and decide to remain in their school once ineffective teachers have been dismissed. However, if the dismissal process requires more testing or diverts teachers from collaborating, skilled teachers—who arguably have the most to offer the school—may lose confidence in administrators’ priorities and decide to go elsewhere, even if that takes them out of education.

If teachers in a school see their colleagues mislabeled as failures then morale will (continue to) plummet. They will leave the school…and maybe even the profession. Perhaps “reformers” find this to be a plus…out with the old, expensive teachers…in with the new, cheaper teachers.

I would add a fifth unintended consequence.

5. Making it more difficult to place a student teacher

If a teacher’s value is determined by the test scores of her students, what teacher is going to want to trust “test prep” to a student teacher? Mentoring and student teaching are important. If master teachers avoid taking on student teachers because it might have an impact on their students’ test scores, then those student teachers will lose out on the opportunity to learn from the best.

TESTING IS THE VEHICLE – PRIVATIZATION IS THE DESTINATION

Are the unintended consequences of “reform” really unintended or are “reformers” just not interested in anything other than profit? Are students and teachers simply innocent casualties in the war for privatization of public schools, or are they targets?

The movement to privatize public schools is multi-pronged…it’s coming from rich hedge fund edupreneurs bent on profit, Milton Friedman free market true believers who want to privatize every government service, and the religious right who see public education as a secular evil. For many in those groups, the consequences of public school privatization are not only intended, but celebrated.

More…

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The narrow pursuit of test results has sidelined education issues of enduring importance such as poverty, equity in school funding, school segregation, health and physical education, science, the arts, access to early childhood education, class size, and curriculum development. We have witnessed the erosion of teachers’ professional autonomy, a narrowing of curriculum, and classrooms saturated with “test score-raising” instructional practices that betray our understandings of child development and our commitment to educating for artistry and critical thinking. And so now we are faced with “a crisis of pedagogy”–teaching in a system that no longer resembles the democratic ideals or tolerates the critical thinking and critical decision-making that we hope to impart on the students we teach.

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Stop the Testing Insanity!
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Author:

Retired after 35 years in public education.