Guest Blog: An Alternative to Tests for Measuring Student Growth That Can Also Facilitate Teacher Growth

(Marc Korashan is a frequent commenter on this blog. Marc instructs first and second year NYC Teaching Fellows at a local college,  taught seriously at-risk youth in public schools and worked as a teacher union organizer.)

An Alternative to Tests for Measuring Student Growth That Can Also Facilitate Teacher Growth

Ed asks a number of important questions in his column, “VAM, the Lederman Decision and the Misuse of Statistical Tools.” that have been neglected in the teacher evaluation debate. “If a particular teacher over a number of years consistently receives high scores … what is that particular teacher doing? What instructional practices is the teacher utilizing? Can these practices be isolated and taught to prospective teachers in college teacher preparation programs [or] in school and district-based professional development? Or, are these practices unique to the individual teacher?”

In almost every school there is a teacher whom every parent wants their child to have.  S/he is recognized as getting the best out of their students from year to year; creating a classroom where students thrive and making school a positive experience for her/his students.  Administrators have to fend off parent requests for their child to be assigned or transferred to that class, and that teacher is often given the opportunity to select students for next year’s class (making her/his success a self-fulfilling prophecy as s/he rarely selects the known “problem students” and those students with the least parental support at home have no one to lobby for their placement in her/his class).

The Lederman decision makes it clear that the VAM algorithms don’t work when evaluating these teachers.  The results are “arbitrary and capricious” precisely because of the instability and unreliability of individual scores and the grade level ceilings on the tests that mitigate against growth measures for students who continually excel, If, however we use these teachers as a starting point, we can begin to look for the classroom management and teaching practices that are working in that school in that community.

It is possible to talk about teaching techniques, “what that teacher is doing,” (I do this regularly in my work with first and second year NYC Teaching Fellows), but this conversation must be grounded in both research and tailored to the individual style of each teacher.  I have been privileged to work with teachers who are naturally gifted at doing the two things that any “great” teacher must be able to do; convincing each student that you care about her or him and have their best interests at heart.  If students believe that (even, and maybe especially, the seriously emotionally disturbed students that I worked with), then one can talk about how to use the techniques the research has validated.

Techniques like Functional Behavioral Analysis to understand what needs a student’s inappropriate behaviors are serving can be taught.  Developing Positive Behavioral Interventions for that student so s/he can meet those needs without being disruptive requires a teacher who really likes and wants to understand that student and can get beyond a list in a textbook of things that worked for other students to create something unique.

This is the dilemma at the heart of any discussion of “good” teaching and “measuring teacher performance.”  We teach in a system that creates groups, classes, grades, schools, but we teach individuals.  The original intent for annual student evaluations was to look at how districts and schools were using Title One funds; data was analyzed on a school and district level.  The tests were never designed, and I can argue can never be adequately designed, to reliably and validly measure individual student performance.  Nor do rubrics (that are too often turned into checklists) like Danielson’s really look at the decisions that teachers made to meet the needs of the students in front of them, in that community, in that class, on that day.

If we want to develop a system that measures student performance and growth over time or a system that looks at what teachers are contributing to student progress, then we have to do two things.  We need to invest time and effort into building “growth portfolio” practices linked to standards.  The standards define what students are expected to know and be able to do and we can set up portfolios where students submit work that demonstrates their accomplishments including a brief description of why the student thinks a given piece of work meets the standards and what the student is working on to improve her/his performance.

This kind of portfolio can be started for students in first grade and continue through their graduation from high school.  It could even be used in lieu of Regents to deem students to have achieved meaningful mastery in subjects like English, or Math.  To be both valid and reliable teachers need to have time to meet and discuss what kind of content the portfolio needs to have and to develop analytic rubrics for evaluating the quality of the content.  Rubrics have to be shared with students, preferably in lessons where they apply them to grading exemplars across a range of quality levels.  The system also has to allow for students to add to or redefine the descriptions within the rubric so that they, the students, have some real ownership in the process and their education.

The second thing that needs to happen is to support these practices with meaningful in-service professional development on the standards, at how the standards are written and whether they can be made more meaningful and transparent for students, and on how to write and rewrite rubrics that will effectively measure student growth.  Teachers will need time in their work days to meet and have these discussions and, to the extent that these practices are new, teachers will need time to learn and practice with them and schools will need to have staff developers who can facilitate this work and teach the basic skills.

This kind of process will provide better outcomes than the current reliance on standardized and norm referenced tests.  As it will take place in individual schools, the portfolios, rubrics and the entire process will reflect the needs of the communities that schools are located in.  Different communities may emphasize different skills in earlier grades, but all schools and communities will ultimately be holding students accountable for meeting the agreed upon standards, be they Common Core or Pittsburgh or some new iteration yet to be designed.  Employers will be certain that students with earned degrees will have the skills embodied in those standards.

This kind of model will make it easier to talk about the expected outcomes for students; make it possible to see how teachers are trying to get to those outcomes and allow for more discussion among teachers within a school about what is and isn’t working.

In the end teaching is a craft, a mixture of art and science that cannot be completely captured in a rubric or reduced to set of principles or a recipe.  Teaching comes, first and foremost, from the desire to reach out and connect with students, a desire to share one’s enthusiasm for a subject or love of learning, and only secondarily is it about the more mundane topics of how to manage classrooms and how to plan lessons.  Those are important skills for teachers to learn, but they must be learned by each individual teacher in ways that reflect her/his personality.  The practices are not unique, but they are effective only when students see them as a genuine reflection of the teacher’s personality and her/his concern for the students.

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