Understanding the Mandatory Testing Mess
Every school district in the country is dealing with the issue of mandatory “standardized” testing. In part this is due to the heavy hand of the Federal government holding a large bag of cash to be distributed only to districts that comply with a demand to use standardized test scores as a part of teacher evaluations. The states are concerned about this, as are local districts, and the result is a battery of tests from both that are given to such an extent that there’s little time left to do anything other than prepare for the next barrage of tests. As one of my wife’s 4th graders asked recently, “Couldn’t we just learn something today?”
This sums up a situation that began as a sloppy mess and is rapidly soaring to flights of insanity.
Consider just a few tidbits.
- In my area (suburban Seattle in Washington State), the local school district prides itself as a leader in the use of technology. The new state tests are done entirely on computers. The hardware tends to “crash” with some frequency, causing delays and loss of data. Tech support is inadequate and understaffed, leading to further delays. In the rush to comply, the students are being used as “Beta testers.”
- This week the 3rd graders are attempting the new “Common Core” tests. Because extra notebook computers are required for spares, and because some of the tests are so lengthy that batteries must be replaced, extra staffing is required and none of the notebooks are available for other students. The tests take up six days over two weeks, with Friday reserved for make-up tests. Then the 4th graders, and then the 5th. For six weeks this most technologically advanced district is put in the position of having no notebooks available for students who are not testing.
- Last week teachers prepared for one of the tests by having the students read materials and take notes, as they had been directed to do. The day before the tests came a new directive – no notes are to be used.
- The tests will be scored by people hired off a current Craig’s list ad that offers positions as evaluators. The only qualification is a college degree. In anything. The pay offered is $11.20 an hour, in an area where the minimum wage will be ramping up to $15 an hour over the next couple of years. What quality of college graduates will want a job that pays $11.20 an hour in a demographic where an average house costs $500,000?
- Parents can opt a student out of the tests, but if they do so the student is given a test score of 0. Such test scores are used in evaluations for entrance into all sorts of specialized programs. The scores become part of the student’s permanent record. Further, they are intended to be used as part of the teacher’s annual evaluation.
These few items are just the tip of an absolutely enormous metaphorical iceberg of items that defy rational analysis. How did we get here?
Proposition 13 passed in California in 1978. Promoted by Howard Jarvis and Peter Gunn, this initiative capped real estate taxes at the 1975 level and restricted and controlled future tax increases. This had dramatic effects on the California economy and unleashed a tsunami of cuts in funding at all levels of state government. Of course there were reasons for the creation of Prop 13 in the first place, and some of them were valid, but the outcomes over time were more drastic than the funding cuts. In sum, the public took to heart the concept that the government was not to be trusted, and must be limited and/or stymied at every turn, especially where taxation was involved.
Since that time a blizzard of initiatives have been placed on the ballot all over the country seeking to restrict or remove any source of tax funds. Many of them have passed and been enacted into law. With budgets slashed, government services are pared ever further, and distrust of government grows.
If you do not trust government, where is your nearest government institution to direct that mistrust? Your local schools.
The ‘80s and 90’s were decades of unparalleled growth in the capability, availability, and usage of electronic technology. With billions and billions of facts at hand, almost anything could be reduced to data. Lots of data. About everything. Available in almost no time on any topic. Soon came the idea of reducing the school experience to data points, and the concept of attaching teacher performance to test scores was born.
Along the way we lost sight of an old analysis acronym called “GIGO.” GIGO stands for “garbage in, garbage out,” and calls for an analysis of where the data came from, who collected it under what circumstances, and what factors were included or excluded. We don’t bother with such trivia any more.
Decades ago I taught a series of 9th grade English Honors classes at a junior high. In the room next to me, separated by a glass wall, toiled two of my colleagues in a Special Education program for kids with all manner of learning challenges. Once in a while I would be cajoled, coaxed, or strong-armed into leaving my classroom for a day of staff development for teachers in the Honors program. At every one I attended the presenter praised those present as the best and brightest teachers in the district.
I knew that was an utter falsehood. I became the teacher assigned to this program because nobody else wanted it. That was my qualification.
The Honors classes were the most creative and fun classes I taught. On one occasion I gave up a planning period to teach the Special Ed class, as both teachers needed to attend a meeting. They prepped the kids in advance, telling them that Mr. Preston, the Head of the English Department (!), and the Girls Basketball and Volleyball Coach (!), would be their teacher that Friday. I never had a class more excited to see me or more intent on performing well. The assignment was a fairly simple math lesson involving story problems and I tried to teach my eager students for an hour. I totally failed. They tried so hard to understand while I, with more than a dozen years of teaching five classes a day behind me, could not summon the verbal and mental skills required to teach the lesson.
What happens when we use test score data to evaluate teachers? How would those Special Ed teachers have fared when the scores of their students were compared to what my Honors kids would have racked up?
Demographics count. My wife’s elementary school is in a fairly affluent area dominated by parents who work for Microsoft, Google, and Amazon. Her elementary school houses 650 students. Individual and groups of students speak a total of 27 languages in addition to English. After vacation breaks, they often return from Paris, Hong Kong, Australia, or other far flung destinations. Their world view, at the age of nine, puts them so very far ahead of students in a less affluent and world-traveled demographic. Most of them come from homes with state of the art computer systems they’ve been using for years. Their enhanced world view and experiences come into play on virtually any standardized test.
What if a student has moved here from a foreign country? If such a student does not speak English, his or her scores will sink to the bottom. This in turn will drag down the average of the class, and the standing of the teacher. The same teacher who is prevented, under penalty of dismissal, from offering any student any assistance or help during the entirety of the test.
Now add politics. Politicians have learned that to attain and retain an office, you must have an issue that resonates. Education is a popular source of issues. You must propose a bill to deal with the “issue” you have identified. It does not matter a jot if the legislation succeeds at solving the problem, or even if it was a real problem in the first place. If the law is not effective, you have an opportunity to propose a new one. “No Child Left Behind” was the first of these that applied to education on a national scale and has led to dozens of more specific requirements at the state level. All of them are driven by data, and all of the data is meaningless due to flaws in how the data is gathered and arrayed.
Consider the federally funded mandate that test scores must be used in teacher evaluations. Which test? Who wrote it? When is it given? Who scores it? Are factors included for income levels, available infrastructure, student variations of capability, special needs, available food and shelter, parental guidance, and a host of other factors? (Hint: no)
But isn’t it difficult to get rid of bad teachers? Not in my experience. As teacher who was receiving a bad evaluation from the principal. He noted the wads of paper tossed across the room a few times and where the teacher was in the various curriculum areas. In Math, I recall, the teacher was on page 12 of the text and every other teacher was on p.96. The principal reeled off his findings, which were complete and devastating. He offered a list of books to read and a couple of college classes to take. Failure to accomplish these tasks would result in dismissal.
As we left the meeting, the teachers asked me what he could do. I told him the principal had followed the contract, and he could comply with the items on the list or need to try a different career. There were no other viable options.
All the principal had done was read the contract and follow the specified evaluation procedure. It took two hours of his time plus perhaps a third hour to type up his report, and a fourth for our conference. Four hours of time from a person who teaches no classes during the day is not a serious barrier to removing a bad teacher. Bad teachers are not all that common. In this case the children benefitted, and so did the teacher, who did move on to another line of work.
The new paradigm is to test frequently and to record all scores to create more data. The tests are seriously flawed, the infrastructure to provide them is inadequate, and the scoring system ludicrous. The eventual results are useless and have little connection to a particular student, and none at all to the performance of the teacher. But they are data! GIGO.
The solution? Reminds me of when I was a basketball coach. You would have try-outs at the beginning of the season and efficiently cut the numbers of applicants down to what the program could bear. A few days of practice would allow you to select the “varsity,” and after that came the final step of selecting the starting team. After another couple of weeks of practice you would get to a point where you needed to play a game. It was time to relinquish control over every activity of each two hour practice and turn the players loose. During the game you could call time-outs and so forth to redirect, but it was now the players’ challenge to do the best they could with their own skills.
It used to be this way with teachers. After all, not all who enter a college of education make it through the course work and student teaching and the hiring process. Those who do have made “the team” and are duly rewarded with enormous responsibility. We need to let them exercise the responsibility they have worked hard for.
Most school districts have relied for decades on a legal principle called “in loco parentis.” This is applied to education in that in this location, the teacher is the parent. Teachers are responsible for the education of the child, but also for safety. It is a legal obligation to report to an administrator even a teacher’s suspicion of child abuse, with or without any definite proof. Failure to do so can mean dismissal and the possibility of being sued by the child years later for abdication of the responsibility to protect. I did report suspected abuse of a student on one occasion. The next week the parents removed her from school and enrolled her in a different district, but eventually the truth came out.
Standardized tests do not apply to teacher decisions like this, and there are thousands of them in a teacher’s year.
Think about “in loco parentis” for a minute. As a parent, do you ever make mistakes? If your answer is “No,” you are either not a parent, fibbing, or emotionally and psychologically totally removed from your child. Would your performance as a parent improve if you were required to take an extensive battery of tests each year to produce data regarding your fitness for the task? For each child? There would be, of course, no consideration given to the particular talents or needs of each of your own children.
I was fortunate to be taught by excellent teachers in my youth. They made mistakes. The ones that either I noticed or my parents caught were discussed and resolved.
The concept of “in loco parentis” is a good one and would be the basis for turning the ocean liner that is education around and heading back to safe seas. Each community is paying for the education of the children with their tax dollars, but that does not require ceding control of schools to the funding source.
Hire trained teachers, put them in the classroom, give them light and heat and paper and other materials and personnel support, and watch the results. In your own home. With your own child.
Education is in a bad way at this time in this country. It is not the fault of the teachers. In fact there is no handy target to pin with a blame tag. What exists is a tragic cocktail of public pushback to taxes, political maneuvering, and a mass hysteria of blind faith in reams of data.
To do better we will have to put some trust back where it used to be.
In your child’s teacher.
In your own local school.
Copyright 2015 David Preston