An interesting conversation happened on the metro on the way home from the airport the other day. A gentleman sat down next to me. Through a bit of small talk we discovered that we were both educators; he at a nearby college, and I at a public elementary school. The next thing you know, he mentioned something about the education reforms of Michelle Rhee.
I took a deep breath, and thought to myself, “Do I make an excuse not to chat and stare out the window all the way to my park & ride stop, or do I dive right in to this giant can of worms that is Public Education Reform?”
I took a calming breath and said, “I’m not a big fan of Michelle Rhee.”
As expected, he followed up with, “Oh? Why not?”
Now, my answer could have gone in many different directions. But our commute was generally less than 30 minutes, so I had to narrow it down. I picked teacher evaluation.
I told him that I felt that it was not fair to evaluate teachers based upon their students’ test scores.
The test scores she was using to determined teacher effectiveness were not representative of what the students knew or were able to do. They were norm referenced standardized tests, identifiable because the scores were reported in a percentile ranking, and were designed to rank. The state tests were given in the Spring, and the results were not published until the following fall. By then, a teachers has a whole new class, and last year’s class is off to middle school.
Then I told him the story I heard at Bunko. I play this silly dice game called Bunco once a month with eleven other women from my neighborhood. Most of them are white, affluent and privileged, as are their children. It was May, which means testing time at the local middle school. The son of one of the bunko moms got home from school, and being the proactive, interested, involved-in-her-son’s-education mom that the bunko lady was, she asked him how the testing went. His response was something to this effect: “Who cares? The tests don’t count for anything, anyway. If the teachers were nice and gave us treats like in elementary school, then we might try harder. But they just talk down to us and treat us all like cheaters, so why should we try at all? It’s just a big waste of time.”
Now, before we go all ballistic on the poor, apathetic, pre-teen kid; let’s see if we can figure out where he’s coming from.
Let’s start with, “Who cares? The tests don’t count for anything, anyway.” From his point of view, he is exactly right. The tests do not count toward any grade on his report card. The tests do not count toward any exit requirements for middle school, nor any entrance requirements for high school. If fact, the students, their parents, (and the students’ teachers) won’t even get the results of the test until the following fall, by which time our middle schooler will be well into the first semester of his next grade level, and will have forgotten all about last year’s testing.
And when the results do come, they don’t give anybody much relevant information. One can determine a student’s percentile ranking for each test. A 70th percentile ranking means that the student scored better than 70% of his peers on a particular test. One can find out how many questions were possible, and how many responses were correct. But one cannot find out what the questions were, so there is no way to use the results for any individual’s educational purpose.
There is also no way to tell if a student accidentally skipped one, missed one because it was left blank, missed one because of a stray pencil mark on the answer document, or maybe accidentally bubbled in the correct answer on the wrong line, or bubbled in two circles for one question by mistake. Pesky humans!
Middle school students have, by now, caught on to the fact that the state test does not matter to them personally. And as human juveniles, they have not all reached that cognitive level of social awareness and civic responsibility that would motivate them from within to do their best on the test anyway. So the results are skewed for everyone. And I can’t really blame them. After all, “the tests don’t count for anything, anyway.”
On to the next gripe. “If the teachers were nice and gave us treats like in elementary school, then we might try harder.” Clearly, this student has fond memories of his elementary testing windows. I can’t speak to his elementary school testing experience, but I can speak with authority about my 29 years of testing experience at 3 different schools in 2 different California districts.
In elementary school, we do, indeed, try to make it fun. Testing time has almost a Mardi Gras atmosphere. There is a big lead up to the two week testing window. Lots of information about dates and times is sent home to the parents. Students, parents, teachers, administrators, counselors, custodians, secretaries, the PTA parents; everyone is soundly reminded that while the testing is very important to our school, and that we want students to do their best on the test, the testing days during the two week testing window will be normal, business as usual days, just like any other school days.
Except that parents and students are urged to not be absent during the testing window. Any non-emergency appointments, like for doctors or dentists, should be scheduled for outside the testing window so no student has to come to school late or leave early. But it will be just like any other school day.
Except that parents and students are urged to come to school on time; maybe even a few minutes early. A student who comes in late disrupts the learning environment for the other students, and it can often throw the rest of the tardy child’s day off kilter if he comes in late after all the others have started teaching and learning. But it will be just like any other school day.
Except that parents and students are reminded that students need to go to bed early and get a good night’s sleep (8-10 hours!) so students can be well rested and do their best on the test. It will be just like any other school day.
Except that parents and students are reminded that students need to eat a healthy breakfast, including protein, so they won’t be hungry and will have fuel in their tummies to do their best on the test. It will be just like any other school day.
Except that at recess, students get to have a snack of cheese and crackers just to make sure that no student (at this 100% free lunch school) fails to do his best on the test because he was hungry. But it will be just like any other school day.
Oh, except that recess times and the lunch schedule might be altered to accommodate the testing schedule. And part of the playground might be off limits during specific times during the day for distraction mitigation. But it will be just like any other school day.
Oh, and Speech will be cancelled during this two week period, and so will RSP and the library and the computer lab, because we need the credentialed teachers to help proctor. But it will be just like any other school day.
Oh, and both instrumental and vocal music will be cancelled. But it will be just like any other school day.
AND, on the Friday before the testing window begins, we get celebrate with a (use your best Game Show Host announcer voice here) “Do your Best on the Test” Pep-Rally Assembly! (And the crowd roars!) The principal hands out Smarties (that he has asked the staff to voluntarily donate so he will have enough for 850 kids.) Mr. C. will teach the students how to do the wave, and video tape it! We will sing songs and stamp our feet! The student council members will do a dance that the principal taught them! And the principal will announce that each day during the two week testing window, each student who comes to school ON TIME will receive a red ticket. All of the red tickets will be put into an opportunity drawing for this Shiny New Red Bike!!! (Picture the student council president riding around in circles.) Even students who don’t get tested yet (kinder through 2nd grade) will get on-time attendance tickets, but their opportunity drawing will be for something else, not the bike, because they don’t get to take the test just yet. But we want ALL of the students from ALL of the families to be on time every day during the two week testing window!
But it will be just like any other school day.
Can you say, mixed messages? The elementary school students still fall for this sort of thing, and for the most part, they really DO try their best to do their best on the test. But by the time they get to middle school, when all of the ‘fun’ of testing disappears, the kids catch on pretty fast.
Forging ahead: “But they just talk down to us…”
Well, maybe that’s because we have to. To administer the state standardized test, each teacher receives an instruction booklet. The booklet is scripted. It specifically tells us what to say, in little boxes that say, “Say:” We are required to read the script exactly as it is written; no additions, no omissions. We sign a document that says we promise to do this. This is to ensure that each teacher in each classroom says to the students the exact same thing that every other teacher in every other classroom in the state says to the students. This is a way to protect against one set of students getting an unfair advantage (or disadvantage!) because the directions to the test were explained in a different manner.
To middle school students, who have heard similar directions about, for example, how to fill in the bubble completely, since at least second grade, this scripted language could certainly be construed as ‘being talked down to’. I get that. Can’t fix it.
And: “…treat us all like cheaters…”
Again, this has to do with standardization practices, but how would a middle schooler know that? Before the testing window begins, we must remove from the classroom anything that could give a student an advantage over another student somewhere else in the state taking the same test. If math facts, formulas, vocabulary words, a poster illustrating the writing process, diagrams, student work, and other charts and posters are decorating one classroom and not another, then the conditions under which the test is given are not the same; they are not standardized. So, it all comes down off of the walls before the test. And nothing goes up in its place until after the testing for the whole school is completed. So what looks like ‘ensuring the test is given under similar conditions’ to the staff, looks like, “You take bulletin boards down because you think we will cheat,” to the students.
And we rearrange their desks from the cooperative groups of four or six that they have been in all year to stand alone, individual desks.
And we make them use desk dividers.
And we collect their cellphones first thing in the morning, and return them as they are leaving on testing days.
And they are not allowed to go to the bathroom while the test is in progress.
And then there are the proctors. The proctors (of which the principal is one!) periodically wander in and out through classrooms.
The teachers know they are there to monitor teacher behavior. Are we sticking to the script? And we replacing dull pencils with sharp ones in a timely fashion? Are we keeping test materials in a locked cabinet when not in use? Are my walls bare and free of any hint-giving materials? Are we keeping all the promises we made when we signed the testing agreement?
But the students think the proctors are there to make sure that they are not cheating. To the tweens, what else would proctors be doing?
Obviously, we are assuming they will cheat if given half a chance, and we are doing everything in our power to remove that option, right?
So yeah, during the testing window, we appear to talk down to the students and we appear to treat them like cheaters. Yeah. On the up side, they notice this as a drastic change from status quo, so that means we are not treating them that way the rest of the school year, right? Whew! A silver lining!
And you want to evaluate my effectiveness as a teacher on that student’s test score? The guys sitting next to me on the Metro said he had no idea, and thanked me. You’re welcome.
I am not a fan of Michelle Rhee.