Making the grade

6 Aug

The controversy:
Should teachers be assessed on the basis of how well their students do on standardized tests? Furthermore, should teachers’ pay and job security be linked to student achievement?
It’s in the news here in Arizona as our state follows several others that are enacting laws that up the ante on teacher performance. And a new look at teacher assessment is certainly a priority for President Obama, given his “Race to the Top” speech this week.
It’s got me thinking: would I have wanted to be graded as a teacher based on the grades or scores my students received on mandated tests? For now, I’ll say no — there are too many variables. Yet I can see the need to compare and contrast one teacher to his or her colleagues based on test scores. It might indeed reveal teacher effectiveness.
I can remember several instances when our department head revealed our school’s AIMS scores in writing and reading, broken down by teacher. Whose sophomore class had the most kids making the “meeting” or “exceeding” grade? I don’t think I ever won that contest, but I can remember feeling relieved that my particular students at least performed in the average range. I never taught honors, so I seldom had students who exceeded on the test. And since I didn’t teach remedial English, by the same token I seldom had students who failed the AIMS exams. But if either situation had occurred very often, who’s to say that I would be responsible, as their teacher?
Here are just a few variables that come to mind:
The fabled kid who marks all C’s on the bubble sheet is real. Should a teacher be held accountable for that? There really are kids who have no motivation to do well on a standardized test, even if it’s turned into a graduation requirement. The testing period turns into a display of comic immaturity, followed by a nap. Also realize that there are kids who have no business taking a standardized test; they are often learning-disabled kids who been shoved into the wrong classes all through grade school and have no idea how to answer the questions. Perhaps they have slipped through the cracks in a particular teacher’s classroom as well — I’m sure I had students whose learning problems I didn’t catch.
Another variable: a capable kid who is just having a bad day and is destined to bomb the test. The makers of AIMS tests and the like probably have no idea how often this occurs in a high school setting. Drama at home, drama at school — teachers may make fun of teen angst, but it’s real, it’s frequent and it affects school performance.
Yet another variable: overconfidence. A student may think, “Oh yeah, we studied this in Ross’s class” and choose an answer that seems like something Ross would have said on the topic. The student boldly marks the answer without taking the time to fully understand the question. I can imagine overconfidence often takes hold on writing exams, when the student gets a prompt that seems familiar from English class and essentially regurgitates a previous essay.
That’s my two-cents worth for now on the possible unfairness of using standardized testing to grade teachers. Many experts say it needs to be just part of the assessment package — that many other factors, including teacher observation and professional development, should be used to gauge teacher effectiveness. That sounds a bit more on the mark.
An editorial in USA Today that questions teacher seniority as the sole basis for retention and advocates the use of student test scores in rating teacher effectiveness:
The Republic had an in-depth piece on the pros and cons of measuring teacher success in light of the new law (S.B. 1040 goes into effect in fall 2012). I liked this quote from a teacher in Mesa who is active in the union:  “We don’t evaluate a dentist based on how many cavities his patients get because those patients do things outside the dentist’s office,” said Kirk Hinsey, an eighth-grade English teacher.
Read more:


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