Tag Archives: assessment

Pressure’s On

Today, at least in the state of Michigan (and I’m pretty sure in many other states as well), is testing day.

How do I know this? I’m not currently teaching in a public high school, but somehow, the ACT and its conjoined twin, the MME (Michigan Merit Examination), are not only on my radar, they are having an impact on my research and my teaching.

Let’s begin with teaching. I’ve mentioned a few times here that I work with some local students, most of them “Gen 1.5” kids who speak a language other than English at home, giving them some extra English instruction and support. Yesterday, I went to see four students, two of whom are juniors this year. They are both taking the ACT for the first time. I’ve known it was coming up for some months now, because their mothers had alerted me to its date. Yesterday, they were worried (the kids, not the parents. well, in reality, probably the kids and the parents). Not crying, panicking, freaking out, anxiety attack worried, but worried. They asked what pronouns they “could use” on the essay, and they asked how many examples they should have. We talked about what a good thesis might include, and they asked how to improve their reading comprehension scores.

My plans had included talking to them about color imagery in The Handmaid’s Tale and the role of memories and remembering in Beloved, along with a rhetorical analysis of an editorial response to Beloved’s banning in a nearby city high school. So much for that.

These tests are also encroaching on my research plans. Since I’m doing research in a high school this year, I am “on their schedule,” which means while all my buddies at UM and MSU are on spring break, I’m still working. But that work is happening at home this week, because the teachers at my research site are busy proctoring these tests, which run from Tuesday through Thursday and thus eat up the entire week. I need to do full-day observations with my participating teachers soon, and was going to do that this week while my own classes and obligations on campus were cancelled. Momentary brain lapse — I forgot about testing.

So observations will have to wait. No worries. I’m just trying to make education better for students in our nation by learning from incredible teachers how they go about their important work. But we can put that on hold, along with students’ learning, to ascertain (or maybe not) whether they’ve actually learned anything with wildly outdated, culturally and racially biased, over-administered, ridiculous tests.

But what bothers me about this week isn’t the ways in which these tests are impacting my teaching and research life. I will be at the school next week, and it will not be the end of the world that I couldn’t do observations on my own schedule — that’s the life of a researcher. And my tutoring plans can go on hold for another week without these kids (who are all doing just fine in school and will likely do just fine on the ACT this week) suffering any grand consequences. If talking to them a little bit last night about what they can do in an ACT essay conclusion helps them out a little bit today (emotionally or otherwise), then I’m glad we took the time.

No, what frustrates me is that with each passing year, these tests get a little higher-stakes. I can see it in the eyes of my students, in the panicked tone of parents, and in the frustration of teachers, whose livelihoods get more tied to these tests in more states every year (see one teacher’s thoughts on that, among other things). The other day, a teacher was telling me about the standardized testing “police,” people who come in from the department of education to make sure everyone is at attention and no one is cheating with a rogue water bottle. A couple years ago, this teacher posted some comical suggestions of things one can do when proctoring these tests, which, though funny, points out just how ridiculous some of the testing conditions have become for all involved. For more on that, check out this (anonymous) teacher’s depiction of what proctoring these tests is like (read the whole post for the real effect):

The first day of testing is the longest, most physically and emotionally draining.  But days two and three get progressively worse as the voices in our heads start telling us to do crazy things like grab as many test booklets as we can manage and run up and down the hallways of the school, ripping them to shreds while screaming incoherently.

She tweeted from her classroom 20 minutes ago (must’ve been during a break, because I’m pretty sure the school becomes a wifi and 4G deadzone during the test), “Forget Guantanamo Bay. Just force enemies of the state to proctor the ACT for 4+ hours. That’ll drive an innocent person to confess to mass murder.”

Yesterday, a student told me she wasn’t allowed to bring her book in with her (do you remember when you were a kid and you would finish your test early and read, and it would be the best part of testing day — all the reading? Yeah. Those days are gone.) Kids would rather be reading and teachers would rather be teaching, folks.

Teachers and students aren’t the only ones whose nerves are being plucked like guitar strings, either. Every year, the pitch of my tutoring parents’ voices gets a little higher, a little more strained, a little more urgent, when they talk to me about their kids needing to do well on the SAT and ACT. And they want me to start preparing their kids sooner and sooner. They show me the ACT and SAT prep books they bought for their freshmen, or the SAT vocabulary book they want me to use with their 8th graders, and I try really really hard not to scream and run away forever. As someone who’s basically privately contracted, I feel some of the pressure — what if the kids don’t “correctly comprehend” the author of that dry passage’s meaning? Will their parents fire me?

Pressure’s on this week for many students, who must pass the MME to graduate with a diploma, and who want to do well on the ACT so that they can get into a good college. My thoughts go out to them, to their parents, and to their teachers, who are likely pacing up and down rows of desks wishing they were engaging students in a lively discussion about a novel, fractions, or the periodic table right about now.


Waiting for Waiting for Superman

I finally watched it. I had been waiting to watch Waiting for Superman.

Waiting for what? Not sure. I knew it would “angry up my blood” (the words of my partner as he hit play last night). Waiting until I had adequately prepared myself? Waiting until I could try to watch it with an open mind? Waiting until I had a pen and pad of paper nearby so that I could write down every false statement made about teachers, teachers’ unions, and the role of context in schooling? This is the problem with research that has anything to do with popular media — your brain never shuts off.

What sticks in my memory from watching the film last night, though, aren’t the baldfaced lies about teachers and their work (though there were many), the misinterpretations of the charter system and its false promises (though these were countable), or the uncritical comments about what counts as “achievement” for students or “success” for teachers (though these were rampant). What sticks out in my memory? I watched the movie with my partner-in-crime, my husband of five years. He was able on more than one occasion to point out how the producers made correlational claims sound causal, how the film would argue something about the role of teachers without taking into account context and resources, and how the documentarist often contradicted himself. Without knowing who all of the featured “reformers” were (I knew all of the ones he interviewed by name prior to watching), without being part of the educational system (aside from knowing me), and without having children, he was able to poke holes in the film’s argument about public education in our nation from start to finish.

This gives me hope. Hope that perhaps others, others who are also not educators but are smart people capable of looking at many sides of an issue, haven’t watched this film and immediately blamed “bad teachers” for our nation’s “educational issues” (which I happen to believe are more than a little overinflated by propagandistic media like this). That perhaps not everyone believes that high test scores equal intelligence, that teaching kids how to memorize facts via cute little rhymes doesn’t actually help them become better thinkers, or that teachers care about their students and need support from the administration in order to be the best professionals they can be.

What did I like about the film? Very little. It wasn’t worth the wait. But there was one message (not the primary one, mind you) that I did appreciate — kids want to learn. I’ve been chanting this from the rooftops since I started teaching. It gets easy sometimes — I know I was guilty of this more than once — to blame the kids for not studying, to blame parents for not encouraging studying, to blame everyone but ourselves as teachers for students’ disengagement. While I hate the media chant that “bad teachers” are to blame for “bad results” because the “results” are poor measures to begin with, I do believe that teachers and administrators should be introspective about their role in making learning worth it for our students. One thing I learned during my few years of teaching was that students do want to learn. They crave knowledge about the world, how it works, and how and where they fit within it. They crave challenge. On those occasions when teaching gets tough because kids are disengaged, disinterested, or disempowered to learn, it’s time for teachers and administrators to look to the curriculum and look to the systems in their own schools to find ways to make learning matter for their students. This message did not ring loud and clear through the film, but it was there as an undercurrent, which I appreciated.

Done waiting to watch Waiting for Superman. Now I’m just waiting for the day our media decides to cut the crisis rhetoric.


Misunderstanding Standards

This article lauding the Common Core, from The Commercial Appeal and coming to me by way of Schools Matter, is not understanding the difference between standards for student achievement and actual teacher practice. Why do I care? Because this is how the complex act of teaching and the actual impact of standards get represented in the mass media. And it’s a problem.

Take, for example, the following passage, from the first two paragraphs:

Tennessee’s elementary and middle school math classes will sound more like philosophy, even debate practice, starting this fall.

Under the new Common Core standards being adopted locally and nationally, students in grades 3-8 will be encouraged to work problems in ways that make sense to them.

First of all, this says two different things right off the bat. Just because a problem “makes sense to a kid” doesn’t mean a math class is going to sound like a philosophy course.

But the part that really grinds my gears is the uncritical attribution of the teachers’ new approaches to the Common Core. Standards are “ultimate goals” — they represent what teachers and students should aim for in their work together. They do NOT — and the Common Core document even says this — tell the teachers how to move students towards achieving those goals. They do not dictate how to teach, do not  encourage particular practices (this could be debated, but they don’t do it explicitly), do not make a teacher a better, more innovative, more capable teacher.

Rhetoric that suggests otherwise is not only wrong, it refocuses the attention and credit for good teaching on policy-level, outside-the-classroom factors, when in fact effective teachers are effective because they care about their students, they are continually revisiting their approaches, and they have extensive knowledge of their content and their students’ needs. NOT because of some top-down, not field-tested policy document they did not create or endorse. And that redirection of attention, in my book, is not okay. Especially considering that the general public is more likely to read an article like this than to actually look at the CCSS document.




Point, Counterpoint — Teacher Eval Based on Test Scores

This comes to me courtesy of The Paper Graders, who got it from a colleague and posted it yesterday. Thank TPG!

Up and at ’em early this morning, both in an effort to get a start on my homework and because I wanted to have the time to blog about this article, Should Student Test Scores be Used to Evaluate Teachers, which was published on the Wall Street Journal’s website in late June.

To begin with, three cheers for The Wall Street Journal for hearing both sides, and a big thank you to Thomas Kane and Linda Darling-Hammond for being willing to speak both sides. What I would really love to see are their reactions to each other’s ideas, because they were published here as two separate pieces. However, this is a big step in the right direction — too much media is only publishing one side of this argument, and it’s often the uncritical pro-test, pro value-added side.

That said, you all probably know where I fall on this issue. Should student test scores be used to evaluate teachers? Absolutely not. Here are my reactions to each of their posts. I’ll start with Thomas Kane.

First, my gut reaction after reading one of his first sentences, which read:

Clear evidence for that conclusion comes from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation’s Measures of Effective Teaching project, which I lead.

…is there ANYTHING that the Gates Foundation DOESN’T fund related to high-stakes testing and value-added measures?! Diane Ravitch posted recently about the Gates Foundation, similarly stumped by the forcible hand they have in shaping so much education policy. I feel like I’m seeing the name “Gates” in places where it shouldn’t be appearing more and more often, and I don’t like it.

But now for his actual argument, which has some interesting, though perhaps weak, points. For example:

…despite some fluctuation from year to year, we have found that a teacher’s record of promoting achievement remains the strongest single predictor of the achievement gains of their future students. In such a ratings system, a teacher’s average may vary from year to year, but so do the batting averages of professional baseball players. In each case, the measure provides a glimpse (albeit imperfect) of future performance.

I’ve seen this cited over and over again — the teacher matters. We know this, of course. Teachers, according to many studies in recent years, can inspire students to achieve, can help students overcome obstacles related to their contexts, and can deliver instruction in innovative ways that meet the diverse needs of their students. What concerns me about this, however, is that he not only doesn’t give any of the numbers (“we have found”… okay, but how?), but that he says this as though teachers’ averages actually get treated as such — as averages that fluctuate. The reality right now is that teachers’ averages get treated as absolutes, not as “imperfect glimpses of future performance.” And Darling-Hammond points out just how imperfect these glimpses are:

…at best, teachers’ value-added ratings in one year predict only 25% of the variance in ratings in the next year, leaving 75% or more to be explained by factors such as who is assigned to a teacher’s class and what conditions he or she teaches under. The National Research Council and the Educational Testing Service, among other research organizations, have concluded that ratings of teacher effectiveness based on student test scores are too unreliable—and measure too many things other than the teacher—to be used to make high-stakes decisions… Unfortunately, federally imposed teacher-evaluation policies insist on using state tests that do not measure growth, are poor measures of higher-order thinking skills and penalize teachers of the neediest students.

First of all, way to go Darling-Hammond, who is typically a qualitative researcher, for giving us the numbers that Kane conveniently left out. Second, she’s right. Things like SES are strongly correlated with school funding (duh… anyone who has ever owned a home in a school district with a “good reputation” — or a “bad” one — knows that), and that correlation messes up the numbers, meaning that those “averages” Kane is so fond of above are exceedingly inaccurate measures of teacher “performance.” They’re just as likely to measure how often, on average, the teacher’s students got a good breakfast before they walked out their doors in the morning, or how often they are distracted by the siblings they need to take care of while Mom works second shift to get food on the table. You can “control” for these variables, statistically speaking… but not really, and only sort of. They are always there. They are always part of the statistic.

I need to wrap this up, because homework calls. Suffice it to say that I’m glad WSJ posted this, I’m glad they talked to both sides, and I think Kane’s and Darling-Hammond’s arguments are worth hearing side-by-side. This is the way we should have these conversations.

But if I’m being honest, I think we should have these conversations this way because they point out just how ridiculous our current policy moves are becoming. On the one hand, we have a name-dropping, overgeneralizing argument — on the other, a clear delineation of the previous argument’s flaws. Maybe I’m biased. Who am I kidding, I am biased. But I think the more of these dialogues that we see, the more obvious it should become that the value-added, test-driven road that we’re on is not the logical one.