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Frustrated By Teachers And Testing

Motivsationrobots Check out John Merrow's oped in the Wall Street Journal today (Student Tests – and Teacher Grades), in which he describes how public education exists in "an upside-down universe where student outcomes are not allowed to be connected to teaching."

He's frustrated, and so am I, though by slightly different things. To me, one of the most sharply frustrating things about teachers' resistance to being evaluated or paid at least in part based on how their students do is that teachers have no such compunctions when it comes to evaluating their own students -- and little tolerance for kids' excuses.  No time to study for the vocab quiz?  Tough luck.  Didn't remember your books over the weekend?  You'll remember next time.

Every day, every week, every month, classroom teachers give their kids quizzes and tests that form the basis of determining students' grades and in some cases even whether they will pass to the next grade level or not.  I'd be more sympathetic to teachers' concerns about performance-based pay and evaluation if teachers weren't doing just what they don't want done to them every day in millions of classrooms.


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I've always wondered how student scores would determine how good the teacher is? If a teacher has a room of students that are college bound and get B's versus a teacher in a room with students with learning disabilities, but they get C's, who's the better teacher? What about a teacher in a school with an state End of Course exam? Would students passing the EOC exam mean the teacher is good? I've seen a lot of teachers whose students pass their EOC, but i wouldn't want my kid in their class. What would you suggest is an accurate way to tell if the students are learning history? Classroom tests a teacher can manipulate? SAT scores? But then which teacher gets the credit? State exams? These tests are minimum competency where usually each kid shows improvement over the year whether the teacher is good or not.

I'm all for giving better teachers raises and firing the bad ones, but whenever someone brings up the idea, they NEVER offer a way to evaluate the teachers.

Hmm. Are teachers completely opposed to any and every evaluation, or are they opposed to certain evaluations?

Seems to me that it is pretty easy to vilify teachers in populist rhetoric. Neither your straw teacher nor the one posed in the original article represent ‘teachers’ in a very complex way as far as I am concerned.

from eduwonkette:

Alexander Russo, also commenting on Merrow, makes the mistake of equating teachers' evaluation of students with tests and quizzes with the evaluation of teachers by students' test scores. It's just a bad comparison. Teachers give tests, assignments, reports, homeworks, etc in order to evaluate students and to see what they've learned. These measures are part of an extended interactive process through which a teacher hopes to move students forward. The purpose is not simply to label a student as "good" or "bad" based on one assessment. But when we evaluate teachers based on students' scores, the teacher is being evaluated on a more narrow set of skills than are students, and high-stakes are attached to a single test. So the intent of the process is different; few value-added plans are designed to help teachers improve, but focus instead on assigning rewards and sanctions.

The measurement issues are also different. In an elementary school year, a teacher probably collects 900 data points on student performance (let's say 5 a day); with teacher value-added, we end up with 20-25 data points a year. Teacher value-added is, in short, a low precision enterprise.

despite differences of intent and measurement, there is a fundamental, underlying similarity between teachers evaluating students and teachers being evaluated that should not be ignored -- if only to help teachers understand why it is so frustrating to some non-educators to hear teachers do what seems like resisting the common-sense notions of evaluation.

plus which, let's not idealize what's in teachers' gradebooks and why it's there. not all testing done by teachers is all that formative and constructive. many teachers sort and label kids with no real intent or ability to help students improve, just like they don't want to be sorted and labeled by others.


The scientific term for the dynamic you describe is "the shit rolls downhill."

"why it is so frustrating to some non-educators to hear teachers do what seems like resisting the common-sense notions of evaluation"

Thanks for saying "seems like"--because that's the leverage point. Some teachers are very accountable and responsible for their students' learning, and skilled at collecting data to support their conviction that those students are progressing--and those teachers rightfully resist non-aligned, off-the-shelf standardized tests as a measure of their efficacy. But--many non-educators think a test is a test, so all the data is equally valuable and reliable. Not so. Not even close. However...

"many teachers sort and label kids with no real intent or ability to help students improve"

This is also true. The question here, however, is around whether it's intent or ability. Lots of practicing educators got/get little or no training in assessment, including the very assessments that are now being proposed as measures of their professional worth.

If teachers are blithely sorting and labeling kids, then whining when they themselves are sorted and labeled, that's a problem with intent. But if they truly don't know how to use assessments to help students improve--if the problem is ability or capacity--there is something that can be done to make teachers more effective. Many policy-makers go directly to "all teachers complain--let's get rid of the bad ones" instead of looking at the work of successful teachers and spreading it.

There are many compassionate teachers who give their students numerous opportunities to pass and frequently accept late assignments.

thanks for all these responses.

i don't mean to slander teachers here, and don't think that i have. i am just pointing out that teachers should be as reflective about how they measure student achievement in the classroom -- not always particularly well, i would argue -- when they argue against having their achievement measured.

i feel like there's a disconnect between how teachers evaluate students and how they talk about wanting to be evaluated by districts. and, at a subconscious unspoken level, i think that it's confusing and frustrating for some nonteachers to hear teachers argue against testing when, day in and day out, teachers do way more testing than any state or district.

it's worth noting that what i'm saying is as much an argument against crude performance measures for teachers as it is an argument against crude performance measures that teachers may use.

I posted this over at my blog:
I think Alexander Russo gets this one wrong when he writes,

To me, one of the most sharply frustrating things about teachers' resistance to being evaluated or paid at least in part based on how their students do is that teachers have no such compunctions when it comes to evaluating their own students -- and little tolerance for kids' excuses.

because he doesn't understand the fundamentals of good assessment (which I think most teachers understand -- for real, we're not all complete crap). I don't test to sort my students -- what's the point of that? I wish they all got A's -- imagine a whole class full of children who learned 90% or better of the material I am trying to teach! I test to see what stuck, decide what I should re-teach, etc. State NCLB testing does not test to teach. The results don't come back until the student has moved on to another teacher -- and the results don't tell you much anyway. Our state's reporting is notoriously opaque. My students are also given the opportunity to be evaluated in a wide variety of ways over a period of time. Forgot about a vocab quiz? So what, there's another one next week. "Forget" to turn in that essay I nagged you about for a month and a half? There'll be more! Judging me on test scores is OK by me as long as I'm evaluated in other ways, as well.

I do find psychometrics fascinating. I've spent thousands of hours figuring out College Board tests, state tests, etc. so I can get the kids through them. Testing works just well enough to make us think it works all the time. Sorta like that old Buick Skylark I had as a teenager: It started most of the time, so I expected it to start all the time (and when it didn't, I crawled underneath it and whacked the crap out of the starter with a rock I kept in the trunk).

(PS -- enjoy checking in on you... you do mostly get it right, but saying, "Yeah, me too!" isn't very interesting reading.

more responses from over on eduwonkette:


What would you cite as evidence for your claim that "many teachers sort and label kids with no real intent or ability to help students improve"?

Posted by: skoolboy | May 9, 2008 10:06 PM

I was just about to write what Skoolboy wrote. I find that remark stereotypical and offensive.

It's not really constructive to say that many people from one ethnic group are criminals. It's not much of an improvement to slur members of a profession.

Posted by: NYC Educator | May 10, 2008 1:19 PM

Alexander, I'll help you with this. You can use the two "teachers" whose rooms are on either side of my classroom, a number of others who teach elsewhere in the building, or any countless others around the city.

It's funny that the defense of teachers - the begging for proof - always comes from those who spend every moment making sure that nobody can collect that proof. We can't use data until they're both perfect data and perfectly-and-fairly-used, according to the fans of the status quo, because that would be unfair. Are we to believe, then, that the 900 assessments that elementary school teachers perform each year are all 100% fair and providing 100% solid, useful data? If not, why would we subject our kids to anything we wouldn't subject ourselves to? The answer, I'm afraid, is that the people who argue against testing are either solely or mostly concerned with how whatever system we employ benefits the adults, rather than their students.

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