Stepping Outside the Matrix: Ending Test Mania and Professionalizing Teachers

Guest blogger: Marc Korashan has had a long career as a public school and college teacher, education evaluator, union organizer and an observer of the education scene

The Governor in his zeal to attack teachers ignored everything we know about VAM, student test scores, and what is needed to improve teaching. I would submit that the test scores (both reading and math) are frauds because neither predicts with any meaningful accuracy (Predictive Validity) whether students will actually read or use math to solve problems in the real world. The tests tell us, at best, if students have certain basic skills, but they mostly do this in a comparative model rather than an absolute model. Tests are designed to tell us if Johnny reads (or does math) as well as the hypothetical average student in his grade. They do not tell us if Johnny can read and understand texts written at a particular level of difficulty or, more importantly, will read those texts on his own.

The Governor and his allies compound that fraud by trying to make a causal link between observed teacher performance and student test scores. We know a great deal about what we believe good teaching looks like. It is mostly about getting students interested in learning, giving them the tools to work with, and problems they are interested in pursuing. The tests are not interesting, are constructed to be deliberately confusing so as to better discriminate among students, and do not reflect the real world at all. (Remember the two trains from opposite directions on the same track in Algebra.)

Every teacher has come across a student or students who do not do well on tests but excel in extended projects that they chose for themselves. Which is more indicative of student learning, the score on a test designed to discriminate among students or the well written research paper (or poem, or play or story) that a student chose to work on and put in time and effort to complete?

The current testing mania (and it is clearly a mania in the true sense of the word) flows from an inherent distrust of teachers. The guiding presumption is that we can’t allow teachers to grade students because they will inflate the grades to make themselves look good. Isn’t this what happened in Atlanta (and Washington DC and in Houston before NCLB was passed). Eduardo Porter in the New York Times wrote a piece explaining how any high stakes metric based on a single measure encourages cheating. ( His examples go beyond Education to aspects of medical practice and policing.

Nonetheless, teachers need to be evaluated from year to year to ensure that they are applying what we know to be the best practices and are actively engaged in trying to get the best from their students. The solution is not to double down on these flawed tests, but to think seriously about what we want students to know and be able to do, encapsulate that in performance standards and then think long and hard about how students can demonstrate they have achieved the standard.

Standards have to be expressed in terms of actual performance. The roll out of the Common Core was flawed because teachers were not involved in discussing what the standard looked like in practice nor were they given the time to develop activities (curriculum) to help students get to the standard or projects that would represent achievement of the standard.

A standard like the one the CCSS abandoned, “Students will read 25 book or book equivalents in a year,” is much more meaningful in telling us which students are reading and will continue to read. More importantly the artifacts that students submit to demonstrate they met the standard give the teacher meaningful information that s/he can use to push the student to tackle more challenging readings in their area of interest. We know that students who read more will become better readers.

Education is a system where the professionals are not treated as such. Education is seen as best governed from the outside using test developers who work in secret to create evaluation tools to measure students and, now, teacher performance. That is not true for doctors, lawyers, accountants or other professionals. The quality of their work is judged by their peers based on standards of performance for the profession and the actual work they do.

Any system for evaluating professionals that is not built on the experience and knowledge of the best practitioners is doomed from the start. That is what happened in the roll out of the existing APPR formula and will happen again with the Governor’s new rating system.

The solution is for the Regents to hold hearings to get teacher and parent input on the problems with the high stakes testing regime. How is it distorting instruction, what is it doing to students in terms of pressure and stress? The Regents need to think about a system that uses peers to observe and evaluate teacher practice and what kind of rubric will really define what good practice looks like. (Most of the teachers in the corporate charter schools that the Governor is so fond of would fare poorly on rubrics that stress social learning as those schools use direct instruction and rote drill to a much greater degree than the NYC public schools allow.) More importantly than what a class looks like to an outside observer on a given day, is the quality of thought and the reasons for the instructional decisions the teacher made that day (and makes over and over again every day).

These discussions have to continue past the point of creating a formula for next year. They need to become the foundation for a reasoned and sensible system that will put to bed the junk science and the over-emphasis on high stakes tests that are not being used for the limited purposes they can serve. We need to develop an evaluation system that recognizes the professionalism and knowledge that teachers have and ends the 19th century model of school supervision that we are still mired in. We need a system that encourages bright young people to enter the profession, supports them, encourages them to think and develop their skills so that they choose to stay in the profession.


One response to “Stepping Outside the Matrix: Ending Test Mania and Professionalizing Teachers

  1. Excellent piece.


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