Saturday, April 28, 2012

Teaching, Test Scores and Education

Back in college, I had a conversation with a friend about his prospects.

My friend claimed his grades didn't matter; how he looked on paper didn't matter.  What mattered was that he could get in front of the decision makers and charm them (state his case).  There are many definitions of privilege.  To my mind, this is one of them.  Privilege is being able to get an audience with decision makers despite not meeting the original qualifications.

I've been involved (more than I ever wanted to be) in recent discussions about education, school structure and test scores.  For anyone not intimately involved in this current American educational debate, test scores now define everything in most schools.  The scores grade the teacher's performance.  The law is called "No Child Left Behind".  It means, for better or worse, what I remember from my school days is not longer what most students experience.  The students spend more time on math and reading, lots of drills and benchmark tests.  They get less for everything else; music, art, p.e. (gym), science and social studies.  

The school my children attend is a great school, but they have low test scores.  So now they're trying to keep the good things about the school, while raising the scores.  I don't know if they will be successful.

One of the arguments for focusing on the test scores is that life is full of tests.  (This is the argument an administrator told me).  It's true, my school life was full of tests.  I had to take a test for college admission.  I took a test for post graduate admission.  I took a basic math/spelling test to be a temporary secretary back in the 1990s (I got the job despite my spelling errors, more privilege I suppose).

But in my career as an IT professional, I've taken exactly one test.  Maybe I took a personality test when applying for jobs (I don't remember), but only one content based multiple choice test.  And that one test was a fluke (incredibly rare for my field).

So I disagree that tests are a part of life.  They may be a part of academic life, but not a part of life for all fields in the working world.  Most companies have yearly evaluations (or some performance system).  Schools and teachers need outside evaluation.  That's how accountability works.  I'm accountable to my boss and my company.  If I don't do my job by assessment, I get fired.  That's how it works.

I'm not a teacher and I wouldn't dream of being one. It's not my skill set.  It's hard work.  And I challenge anyone who thinks it's easy to try it.  Not everyone can teach successfully.  Not everyone can work in IT or as a chef.

Some politicians imply by their statements (or actions) that any businessperson could teach - or could perhaps be a better teacher than trained teachers. In the next few years, that fallacy of that thought will be apparent.  Allowing an untrained person to teach (or assuming they can teach without any training) is like allowing an untrained mechanic to work on my car, or an untrained nurse to put together my I.V.  What constitutes as training is debatable and something worth discussing.  But assuming anyone can teach without having any idea of subject matter, ways of learning, etc. is ignorant.

How do we independently verify schools and teachers without testing the kids? How do we account for a host of factors that need to be accounted for in that evaluation? What about everything that happens outside of school - which the research shows is a bigger predictor of test scores (and academic success)?

I don't have any answers. I know the system is not working currently.  And I don't know how well children are learning.  Are they being exposed to the wide range of needed skills (in addition to reading and math)?  How do they learn what they want to do as an adult?

And do the teacher's unions and administrators have too much power?

A good public education system has been the foundation of U.S. success.  I know there are ways to reform the system.  But so much seems to hit the law of unintended consequences.  With NCLB, lawmakers wanted to ensure that schools were held accountable.

But what happened is schools started teaching to the test, and teaching to the middle (bubble) kids.  The kids in the middle who can improve, not the very low or very high performers.

I trust the issues will be resolved soon.  I know many kids will succeed no matter what type of education they receive.  And success can be defined very differently.  This issue is not a simple one, and is much more about what type of society we want to be and create than anything else.


Kathryn said...

Very interesting. I had to take a standardized test to become license eligible, and plenty of certifications are tied to some sort of test you have to pass. But I would not for one second say that any early life testing experience prepared me for that. If anything, the more tests I take, the more resentful I feel about it and that harder time I have making myself do it. Beyond that license exam, my profession is not a particularly test-intensive one either. There is, however, a HUGELY profitable industry behind standardized testing, and I suspect that has more to do with it than we'd like to think.

Freckle Face Girl said...

This is a very interesting topic. I am quite glad that I changed my major and did not end up in elementary education. It is very hard work to be a great one. I am sad that the social studies, science, PE, drama and music classes have been cut back in most schools.

I have a feeling it is also the reason that kindergarten has become so intense. Standardized testing doesn't start until 3rd grade (at least in Texas), but they already push the kids so hard. I know that I didn't learn the math, reading, and grammar skills that Lexi has acquired until between 3rd & 5th grade.

The worst part is that I doubt that it will make them better off in the end.

Duck said...

You are probably aware that 48 of the 50 states are or will be teaching what is known as the common core. Its objective is to "make sure" that when students leave High School, they will either be able to continue on in Higher Education or will be able to enter the work force with the needed skills to be successful. The state in which I live is moving to the common core this next school year. As a long time secondary educator, I am very interested in seeing if this will help or if it will make things worse.

And, in my opinion, NCLB has been about the WORST thing to hit public education in a VERY long time. I am glad President Obama is going another direction. When teachers start teaching to the test to "improve" test scores for fear of losing their jobs, the integrity of education is severely hindered.

Very interesting post. Thank you for sharing your ideas.