Something Else (Another Report Card)
As my husband read the Sunday paper earlier this morning, he reported out loud to me the results of the local districts' school report cards as ranked by the state. I could see the grades scrawled in bright red across the front page of our hometown paper. I listened quietly but shook my head as he called out each school, criteria and grade. Why did I disagree on what he read? Lots of reasons. I MEAN LOTS!
I'll start with the concept of a letter grade being given to a school as a measure of school performance. School performance sounds measurable, doesn't it? How well did each school perform? I mean, everything is measurable, right? Businesses can tell how successful they were in a given year compared to previous years. An athletic team reports its wins and losses in a record. So, how well did a school perform? School performance is not measurable. I'll repeat that - school performance is NOT measurable. Well, it possibly COULD be measurable, but to do so would take more effort than what state governments are doing now, and I argue such measurement would NOT be worth the effort. As the gauges exist, measuring a school or teacher's success based on the scores of its students could be likened to measuring a doctor or dentist's success on the health of his or her patients, the state highway patrol on number of wrecks on our highways or a church on the sins of its congregation.
As a former educator, I've learned a lot about testing. One given is that a ton of time and effort is given to testing students. Most of those who have been anywhere near the trenches of teaching, including myself, argue that it's way too much time and effort. In this time devoted to testing, school districts, teachers and students become super creative to attain higher scores. They should, right? Success on the test means achievement, right? Well, I argue it does not. When gearing teaching and learning to a test, teachers, myself once included, unintentionally focus on the end instead of the means. We end up focusing on product and not process. So what? Well, our product should be the children and NOT a test. By concentrating on tests we adapt our systems and methods accordingly and take the human factor out of teaching and learning. From our schedules all the way down to number of questions we ask our students, our time and effort match a test. Moreover, we end up putting more emphasis on some areas over others which hinders learning instead of fostering it. Reading and math get precedent over science and social studies. In a math class probability gets more attention than multiplication tables. Good, you might say- that we need to have priorities in our subjects and content, right? You may argue that students should be able to read and calculate as a basis for all other subjects. You might agree with leaders that passed No Child Left Behind in that we need to focus on the basic needs of students to be successful in reading and math before other subjects. However, in our focus we ignoring parts of the curriculum all in the name of a good score. Ask your science and social studies teachers how the emphasis for reading and math hurts their curricula and can be deemed as a disregard of sorts for their classrooms. Ask what they think about their scores being plastered next to teachers that get double the time on the year to attain their scores. Ask your non-tested area teachers how they feel teaching in schools that give all the attention to core curricula of reading, math, science and social studies. Those elective teachers and subjects feel the state and district slighting them in the grand scheme of things. Heck, these teachers even slight themselves and their students in the name of success on the test. Finally, ask your high school teachers how they feel about how writing instruction, especially grammar and spelling, has been unintentionally decreased in education all because writing isn't regularly outright tested, and our students suffer because of its continual absence. The questions we need to ask about our narrowing focus are countless.
I also have a problem with listing test scores in a newspaper on the front page like stats on a sports page. Some might argue that such transparency is needed and that competition is good for schools, that competition is natural. However, will schools and educators already competing with one another want to share their ideas and creativity if it means that sharing might give another school edge and possibly land the district some embarrassing front page news? If my standing (or pay in the future if lawmakers have things their way) is threatened by sharing my skills with others, I'll be apt to look more like an NFL football coach covering my mouth with a clipboard as I teach than ever letting anyone know how I was successful at anything. I wonder how willing the school that received a perfect report card will be to offer other districts insight into their methodologies with those other second place districts that did not fare as well. I bet the secretary of that district might answer the phone and scream, "YOU CAN'T DO THAT!" the same way the student section does when these same school teams rival on the court and field in competitive play. It amazes me, too, that state legislators that pit districts and teachers against one another in a means to gain higher test scores through so-called healthy competition are the same ones who mandate tactics in classroom management to foster group work and working together. (Don't even get me started on my opinions of group work!)
Another problem with these assessments and the setting of universal standards for all to meet at a given age is that these standards are quickly changed once schools are successful in meeting them. I am NOT making this up. In teaching multiple subjects at multiple grade levels, I witnessed year after year as the bar was raised higher and higher as districts and school became successful the standards morphed and traded places among grades. The long-term goals of NCLB have ALWAYS been set out of reach, with the raising bar upping higher and higher, but the changing of content and the order in which standards are taught made the unattainable even more unattainable. It's been my experience that chaos often ensued as standards changed repeatedly, and teachers panicked to find teaching materials and lessons aligned to new set bars. Quite often, I saw 7th grade content being found in 6th grade textbooks and state test prompts after standards changed, without regard to the results of this change over time nor students' natural development and capabilities. Frankly, we are simply asking more and more of students at a younger age and calling it progress. The dichotomy of these expectations is just baffling. To me, it would be as crazy as asking our children to hit puberty earlier in life or to be a certain height by a certain grade. The facts that content is being pushed down grade levels and constantly changing are the only things that have remained a constant from the onset of testing. Try teaching new standards with a new textbook that has the old standards to students too young to understand them. That's the definition of fun.
People often ask me why I left education. They implore, was it the behavior of the students or the apathy or over zealousness of parents? NO! I love the students and feel honored that parents entrusted me with the care of their children. I was surrounded by wonderful people. In fact, leaving teaching was a difficult and possibly temporary decision. I miss teaching every single day. So why did I quit? When two dear coworkers I loved and would miss dearly wouldn't be teaching in the district I taught, I couldn't help but re-evaluate my position as a teacher like never before. Working two jobs for years had been difficult for a long time, and so I decided to make a leap to choose the other profession over teaching. See, the profession of teaching has changed, and it hasn't been an improvement in my opinion. In my experience in education, we are made to worry more about test scores than test takers. We are made to talk more to one another as coworkers in teams and interact less and less with the students. (Quiet - test in progress.) We are forced to spend more time properly completing a form - bubbling in circles and filling in the lines - than we do filling a child's day with the reward of learning something new. We change content and standards more than we change bulletin boards, and we wonder if we should medicate students who seem to have ADHD because they can't do the office work we've put in front of them and because they can't stop staring out the window at empty playground equipment. We cut recess and lunch time allotments and add more intervention and enrichment. We take away art, gym, music and library and then wonder why students aren't as creative as they were when we were in school. We take away field trips and assemblies and wonder where our students' geographical sense has gone. We are losing with our students if we think we are winning with higher test scores. I simply have decided to sit the bench for a while, possibly the whole game.
In closing, I give my report card on the state's report card. I give them an F. Until the state measures tangible, meaningful, substantial matters, their measurements to me are pointless. Until the state stops changing the content and standards at a rate that allows educators to properly prepare for a test, the results are useless at best. In recent years teachers have scrambled all year long to figure out what content will be covered on a state test and then are judged by the results. The state is a mud puddle in their delivery of what will be on their tests but crystal clear on what the results of these tests are. Teachers often times do not even know what tools they can use on the test until the test materials arrive in spring. Scary! Can you imagine if teachers did this to students? What if only pop quizzes decided your child's report card grades? Too, sadly and often times, these test scores are plastered in red, not only by district, but by subject and grade in newspapers across the state. What other group, business or organization gets a letter grade in bold red Hugo font on the front page of the paper? Not to mention there's no disclaimer to the fact that the state never seems to know what content is being covered or other obstacles to success on these tests. Have you ever read any caption near the results of these rankings that helps to explain that some of these tests are three year tests, covering three school years of content? This means that in smaller districts, such as my former, an 8th grade social studies test is actually a 6th, 7th and 8th grade test. Anyone can figure out who teaches 8th grade social studies or science in smaller districts and are quick to blame that teacher for low scores. Again, these tests cover three years of material! The teacher on the last year of the end of this series is blamed for the scores when they fall below in any way. I have witnessed this blame. That's like blaming the kicker for the loss of the game when he misses the field goal. What about all the plays before that kick? Wouldn't faulting a teacher in such a way be like beating the person running the last leg of a relay race with the baton for not winning and blaming that runner solely, without taking into account the other three team members who ran the legs before them? Actually, it would be more like beating the coach with the baton!
I will not give my report card on the districts in the county where I teach because like the state, I cannot measure what they do. I will give you some tangibles and not so tagibles. The teachers in the county described in my newspaper chose a profession and district that do not pay as well as others. These teachers also do work in the summer and many times take second jobs to sustain doing what they love to do. I know teachers that literally cut other people's grass to continue in the profession they love. Also, I know these fine educators are experts in the field, and yet they have been silenced in the methods that measure them. If you could hear them, you would know that they are tired of changing standards, tired of being criticized and praised for things out of their control and are completely over being judged by tests that have frustrated their already over-tested students. Test scores may not show it, but our educators help our kids become more creative, rewarded, knowledgeable, safe and content in and out of the classroom. I'll also let you in on another little secret, teachers are rebels. As they work as team players doing what they're supposed to do on a daily basis, every once in a while, they are going against the state mandates and fighting for our children and doing what they know is best for them. Sometimes they'll close their classroom doors and let your kids color, they'll take them outside for a much needed recess and they'll even use a song to teach them the names of the presidents, even if knowing the presidents' names isn't a standard on their state listed curriculum. In doing these things they're not lowering test scores or neglecting our students. On the contrary! These fine educators are doing what they're supposed to when they rage against the machine; they're teaching, and students are learning. Finally, you can post test scores all day long, but our teachers, as well as I, know their true value, and you'd give them an A+ if you knew what I know.
*For the record, I am not anti-assessment. Even drivers have to pass a driving test to drive, but we are crazy if we think acing a driver's test means that someone is perfect behind the wheel or failing a test means that one cannot drive. (I wrecked the day I got my driver's license). I just give assessment results as about as much weight as Mark May's pregame rants when covering Ohio State football games. I believe our teachers and students are just like my Buckeyes. They are champions, they WILL be successful, and in my opinion, the state is as wrong about them as Mr. May is about my Bucks.