By Stuart Singer, The Master Teacher
Sometimes it appears that educational policymakers do not understand the fundamentals of education.
Proof of this assertion can be found in Mel Riddile’s recent post concerning the use of certain assessments in evaluation.
“The National Association of Secondary School Principals (NASSP), representing the nation’s secondary school leaders, strongly urges policymakers to delay the use of Common Core assessment results for accountability purposes. Specifically, we call for a delay in invoking penalties and sanctions related to test scores on schools, principals, and teachers until we have had at least two years of experience with the assessments….
“No one is more invested than the nation’s principals in the success of the Common Core initiative. But we fear that the timing dooms the initiative to failure. School leaders across the country have voiced concern that they simply feel unprepared for the new tests—tests that no one has even seen. More than merely seeing the test, of course, educators require intensive training, aligned curricula, instructional materials and resources, and opportunities for students to experience new assessments….
“The pending scenario is frightening: Students take new tests crafted to higher standards for which they have not been prepared. Proficiency rates drop just in time for new teacher evaluations based up to 50% on test scores. It’s the perfect blueprint to discredit public schools, but sadly inadequate if we aim to improve them. Policymakers, at this moment, must decide which path they prefer.”
History is an excellent guide
Mel Riddile is writing from experience. In 1998 the state of Virginia instituted the Standards of Learning (SOL) exams. These eleven tests were designed to become barriers to graduation. But the operative word was “become”. The state wisely allowed schools several years to perfect their methods of preparing students. The first results clearly demonstrated the need for time and practice. The pass rate for the Algebra 1 students at Dr. Riddile’s school was a meager 32%, a number which would have denied two out of every three students a diploma. The next round of testing showed significant improvement (48%); of course a failure rate greater than 50% was still not considered acceptable. But a patient, cogent plan for improvement was in place. Each year previous tests were released for educators to study and committees of teachers and administrators were formed to make adjustments to the method of creating questions. Improved teaching strategies also helped the pass rates to slowly and steadily rise. After five years nearly 87% of the Algebra 1 students in the building were succeeding. It was now appropriate to consider the process an accurate measure of academic achievement.
But if the model being pushed for the CCSS had been in place chaos would have been the order of the day. Failing 68% of any group of students would have resulted in massive, unverified changes with little likelihood of success. A second year with more than half of the test-takers not passing would have set off another round of major revisions. Cue panic, recriminations and the inevitable death spiral. The NASSP projections become reality.
No way to run a classroom
The chasm between educational policy making and the actual act of educating could be considered merely ironic if it was not so potentially dangerous and ill-advised. Anyone who taught in a manner similar to the evaluation plan under discussion would be doomed to failure. Picture how such an approach would proceed between students and teachers.
On the first day of school an announcement is made explaining that a test given at the end of the year will account for 50% of every student’s grade. Such a proclamation would produce a tsunami of parent phone calls. Those conversations would lead to more problems. It would be revealed that there will be no vetting process of the questions on this crucial exam and no one, including the teacher, will have ever seen the test. As a consequence no practice will be available. At a PTSA meeting it will be revealed that everyone in the building will be teaching the tested curriculum for the first time. In essence, the entire faculty will be composed of first-year educators.
At the inevitably stormy parent-teacher conferences to follow questions will be raised about the multiple-choice format of the testing which will be answered with references to reduced cost and ease of grading. Picture the following interaction:
“How can a test so potentially flawed be allowed to constitute half of my son’s entire grade?”
“No problem, we plan to study this group of student results and if they inaccurately measure their level of mastery, we will do better with next year’s group.” Rest assured that negative newspaper coverage, dramatic administrative interventions and revised grading policies would quickly follow.
Of course, such an approach would never be allowed in a classroom. Likewise, it cannot be inflicted on entire districts. The NASSP policy is the right policy.
Next: The Negative Impact on New Teachers