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Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Even kids know we shouldn't use tests to evaluate teachers

From the Washington Post's Answer Sheet, By Sean C. Feeney
Those of us who juggle careers and the daily demands of family life know very well that unexpected moments can often bring surprises. Such was the situation the other night when I was cleaning the kitchen while talking to my daughter as she we describing her day at school. My ears perked up when I heard my daughter mention that her teachers began giving SLO exams in her classes. I asked her what SLO exams were and she explained that they were tests being used to determine how good her teachers are. Students would take the exam at the beginning of the year and then at the end of the year in order to determine how much they have learned. Teachers would then be evaluated based on how well the students did on these exams.
For those who are unfamiliar with these SLO examinations, permit me to explain. WhenNew York State’s Teacher and Principal APPR plan was adopted, an important component of the evaluation of teachers depended on how a teacher’s students performed on end-of-year State assessments. Much has been written about how research simply does not supportthe use of student test scores when evaluating teachers.
Unfortunately, the use of student test scores to evaluate teachers has captured the imagination of the public in these days of “bold” school reform. Unwilling to pause and reflect on the research, our New York state education officials quickly negotiated the use of test scores to evaluate teachers in May 2010. What officials eventually realized, however, was that the vast majority of teachers in New York State do not teach classes ending in a State examinations. This group would include teachers of elective offerings such as art, technology, music and PE. This is also true of teachers of Kindergarten through second grade, 9th grade English teachers and teachers of Advanced Placement classes — just to name a few more. In fact, approximately 80% of New York State teachers are not teaching classes that end in a state assessment.
This begs the question: how was the State Education Department going to evaluate teachers based on student performance on exams when the overwhelming majority of teachers are not involved with state exams? With neither the capacity nor time to develop such examinations on its own, the New York State Education Department declared that teachers of classes that did not have a State assessment would be required to develop their own local assessment. That’s right: these teachers would be required to develop their own tests to administer to their own students so that student performance could then be used to evaluate them at the end of the year.
This system of locally designed pre- and post-assessments was tied into a system of Student Learning Objectives, or SLOs. This system was announced last winter, modified over a period over several weeks and then finalized in the spring for implementation in the 2012-13 school year. Across the state, teachers and administrators began furiously working on hundreds of different SLOs in order to cover all of the courses required under the legislation. A monumental task of tedious paperwork and fill-in-the-blank documentation, schools across our state have spent thousands of man-hours developing these SLO plans and their supporting documentation and assessments.
Now that we are well into the beginning of the school year, students across our state are spending precious class periods taking these various SLO pre-assessments so that there is a benchmark against which to measure progress at the end of the year. This includes students taking their first chemistry course, their first philosophy course, their first physics course or even their first woodworking course. Even our youngest students — those in kindergarten, for example — need to take these baseline assessments so that their progress can be measured through an end-of-year assessment (developed by the teacher) and then their teacher can be evaluated based on the student’s “growth.” This process has led to exasperating conversation among teachers who are frustrated by the need to develop inane pre- and post-assessments in courses such as woodworking, ceramics, band or even AP Psychology.
It should go without saying that thoughtful educators understand the need to determine what students know and what they have learned. This is good practice, and it has been done in courses throughout our country for decades. What is different about what is happening in New York state, however, is that the state Education Department has demanded such a process for every teacher in most every course — a pre-assessment at the beginning of the year and a post-assessment at the end of the year.
Typically, a kindergarten teacher might spend the first month of school doing a holistic assessment of each student in order to determine strengths and weaknesses in literacy, numeracy and social skills. Now, that holistic overview must include some sort of assessment that will then be compared to an end-of-year assessment. A comparison of the scores on these assessments is how New York State will determine how students grow in school.
For those of us who have devoted our lives to working with students and improving schools, this system is one of madness. It is a system that has diverted resources — both financial and human — to a process that has questionable return on investment. It is a process that has added countless hours of additional testing to our students (last year, students in grades 3 through 8 spent approximately 18 hours over two weeks in May taking tests in English and mathematics). It is a process that has completely shut out thousands of educators across our state — include more than one-third of the building principals — so that the views of a handful can be imposed on our students and schools.
It seems that people across New York are starting to understand the damage being done to our schools. At the beginning of this school year, one of my colleagues sent a letter to his parents that articulated in no uncertain terms his concerns about the “reforms” being imposed by the state Education Department. The Niagara Regional PTA recently passed an emergency resolution against the overtesting of students in New York state schools and the evaluation of teachers and students based on test scores. This enormously important resolution will be submitted to the New York State PTA convention this fall.
So what did my daughter say about these SLO examinations? She knew that her score on these examinations would impact her teachers’ end of year evaluations. In her own words, she also questioned the wisdom of such a system:
“This makes no sense. It’s ridiculous! A student can be having a bad day, been sick or been in a fight with a friend. Or maybe the student doesn’t really like the teacher and wants to be mean. It is not fair to grade the teacher based on so many things that he or she cannot control!”
Did I mention that my daughter is only 11 years old? How can the problems with such a system be so clear to an 11 year old but not to those at the head of our state Education Department?

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