Monday, April 12, 2010

Testing, Testing ... 1, 2, 3?

Up here in the great white north, the math & English tests are given in Nov of junior year and the scores are returned to us by march - maybe. We (and many other schools in this state) are on a block schedule so any student who has English or math during first semester is done by the time scores are returned. For the 40% of the students who had English and/or math in the fall semester of sophomore year then not again until spring of junior year, there is a gap of nearly a year between their most recent relevant class and the tests that measure "the students" - go figure the intelligence of that idea.

The science tests are given in May of the junior year and the scores returned to us in the fall of the senior year. Not very helpful either.

The upshot is that the scores cannot be used to measure the students, only the school and the teachers. Likewise, we cannot use the scores to help the students who earned them by giving them remedial classes or somehow making guidance decisions based on the results. Only the curriculum and the teachers can be affected.

Of course, the idea of basing anything on a test that so few take seriously is pretty silly, too. Why should they care, after all? No one gets to see these scores and nothing goes on a transcript.

It's obvious that neither the students' benefit nor their measurement is what is at stake here. This is, purely and simply, an anti-public school, pro-voucher, let's-find-something-to-hang-the-teachers-with idea.

An interesting, though only partially related, opinion in the mid-Vermont newspaper the other day. Full text below the jump of an English teacher's take on some of these issues. One of the hot-button topics up here is the consolidation of districts. We have one or two towns per district - making them all pretty small. The Commish wants to consolidate to save money but there isn't any real chance of saving money this way.

Imperial overreach

By CONRAD TUERK - Published: April 8, 2010

Though I agree with your strong denunciation of Vermont Commissioner Armando Vilaseca's proposal for school consolidation ("Time to get real" April 1), you fail to apply the same skepticism toward his department's pernicious meddling in local schools. In questioning Vilaseca's lust for power at the expense of local control, you ask, "Who is the commissioner of education to supersede this tradition of community involvement and local democracy?"

A good question, yet your enthusiasm for Obama's Race to the Top ignores the same potential dilemma. You urge Vilaseca toward "actual reforms that focus on teachers in classrooms." But why would Vilaseca's imperial overreach be any different there than in his consolidation scheme? Armed with a bushel of federal money, won't Vilaseca and his minions wield a heavier club? More importantly, why should we, at the local level, trust in the Vermont Department of Education's leadership?

If local trust is the heart of the issue, as I think it is, why has the Vermont Department of Education been so tone deaf and condescending in dealing with its constituents? The department's opaque and moronic ranking system, disgraced by bungled computations, is only one public example of the department's ineptitude and arrogance.

In a stunning display of hubris, Rae Ann Knopf, the department's deputy commissioner, distributed a memo on March 30 to state superintendents, principals and teachers chastising them for questioning her department's omnipotence. Primarily, she defends the department's reliance on one single test, the NECAP, to determine a school's effectiveness. She writes: "Our NECAP testing is based on the countless hours of work educators in Vermont and other northeast states put into creating high-quality standards for teaching and learning for our children."

As an experienced educator myself, who works with actual students, I take exception to her claim. I too value standardized test scores, but recognize them for what they are: a snapshot of student learning. If I based my classroom grading on one exam, as the DOE does, I would be compromising my professional responsibilities. Any serious educator understands the importance of using a variety of assessments to determine student learning.

The DOE should know better, especially since they themselves have trained teachers to differentiate their instruction to accommodate various learning styles. The practice arises from Gardner's theory of multiple intelligences, which identifies seven types of intelligences. Since only two of them, linguistic and logical-mathematical, have been traditionally served by schools, teachers have been urged to alter their methods and move away from instruction that focuses entirely on "academic" intelligences. But then they are being judged by a standardized test that measures only those two traits. In essence, teachers are being trained for a practice that runs contrary to how they are judged.

What makes it more maddening is that the NECAP test has no relevance to students. Their results do not affect them in any way. Any reasonable person with the slightest understanding of teenagers will recognize the hazards in such an enterprise. As a monitor for past NECAP exams, I can assure you that students have viewed the test, at best, as a needless distraction or, in most cases, as a complete waste of time. To judge the entirety of student learning, and school effectiveness, based on a single test that most students do not take seriously is beyond ludicrous.

Knopf also takes teachers and schools to task for not caring about all Vermont children: "There is no question that Vermont has a tremendous reputation for its strong educational system, where our young people learn and excel and most go on to lead meaningful, productive adult lives. The key here is most, but not all." She then backs up her claim by relying, you guessed it, on NECAP scores. "If only 18.5 percent of our students eligible for free and reduced lunch reach proficiency in math by eleventh grade, this means 29,000 kids in our state have little hope of gaining the skills necessary to be meaningful participants in today's global economy."

So the only way to be a "meaningful participant in today's global economy" is by reaching proficiency on the NECAP test? What about those young people who possess intelligences that cannot be measured by a standardized test? Do we not tap their interests and aptitudes, for fear of them flourishing, or do we insist they squeeze into our narrow definitions of success? Does a skilled laborer have a less secure future than a college-degreed cubicle jockey?

Not only do I, as a foot soldier, resent having my work in the trenches impugned by distant bureaucrats, but by setting up a strict dichotomy of winners and losers, based on faulty logic and evidence, the DOE may harm the very students it aspires to help. My years of teaching have taught me that every young person is a genius, but genius need not be academic. Rather than stigmatize students who struggle with the NECAP, and relegate them to less-meaningful-citizen status, we should create viable alternatives for students whose interests and aptitudes do not conform to traditional "schooling." Our goal should be to help all young people capitalize on their strengths, not just those who reach proficiency on standardized tests. Utopian thinking may play well in theory, but it fails to address real issues.

What the results of the first round of Race To The Top reveal is that consensus matters. Both winners, Tennessee and Delaware, showed strong stakeholder support: from school districts, business leaders, superintendents, and union reps. Unfortunately, from my vantage point, the Vermont DOE has a long way to go in garnering this level of support. To start, they could spend less time with data and more time with students and teachers. The human world might humble them.

Conrad Tuerk is an English teacher at Rutland High School.

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