Opinion

Tests unreliable way to measure student performance | Sound Off

Do you blame bad doctors for the rising rates of diabetes and obesity in our country? Probably not, because those two maladies are mostly caused by factors not in the control of doctors: primarily, personal behaviors such as over-eating, relying on high-fat diets, and not exercising; and, secondarily, societal forces such as pervasive advertisements, cultural norms, and the modern family. If a patient is under the best care of the best doctor in the land, receiving the best prescription drugs available, and the patient chooses to watch TV, eat a lot of fast food, and never take a walk, then the patient is to blame should he or she develop diabetes or become obese.

Currently, there is a movement to blame teachers for students who are not learning, the logic being that teachers whose students perform poorly on standardized tests should be fired.

Since good teaching has traditionally been hard to define, most teacher evaluation systems rely on a variety of measures, but most heavily on observation of classroom performance. The state of Washington delineates eight evaluation criteria that administrators use each year to determine satisfactory teaching performance: Instructional Skill, Classroom Management, Professional Preparation and Scholarship, Effort Toward Improvement When Needed, Handling of Student Discipline and Attendant Problems, Interest in Teaching Pupils, Knowledge of the Subject Matter Being Taught, and Professional Relationships.

Focusing on test scores is unfair, unreliable, and unwise.

Teachers have no control over which students or combinations of students are assigned to them; likewise, they cannot select or reject parents. Teachers are not responsible for getting students to school well-fed, rested, and supported. Teachers do not decide which and how many resources will be provided to high-needs students, nor do they prescribe curriculum or materials.

Tests are imperfect measures of student performance, and students themselves do not always learn in linear, ever-upward trends. Teaching and learning are not exact sciences and will never conform to the business model. In our state, we assess student progress in reading, writing, math, and science—but what, how and when we assess could change, as it frequently has in the last 15 years. If a student or a class does poorly in eighth grade reading, is the failure the fault of the eighth grade reading teacher when many skills and activities are spiraled throughout the grades and subjects? What about teachers who do not teach subjects which are assessed by high stakes tests?

Our nation’s current drive towards identifying and firing bad teachers is moving dangerously close to a type of educational McCarthyism. The Los Angeles Times makes available on its website, by name, the performance reviews of 6,000 teachers under the banner, “Grading the Teachers.” Can you think of any other job where your performance is published in the newspaper? Are there teachers unsuited for the profession, burnt out, or simply incompetent? Probably, but no more than in any other profession. Emphasizing testing narrows what is taught and children miss out on music, physical education, civics, history and all those subjects that a gentle and wise society values but that are not tested.

Morale suffers in a profession that depends on passion and optimism when each day headlines and commentators assuredly assert that schools have failed. In a misguided search for a panacea to make Johnny read, do math, come to school, and behave, we have focused on the wrong side of the equation, embracing charter schools, merit pay, competitive grants, high-stakes testing, and punitive evaluation. Well, there are two parts to public education (public and education) and we would do much better to look at the personal behaviors of students and parents, and larger societal forces as to the causes of failure.

Are schools perfect? Of course not. But scapegoating teachers is not the way to improve them.

Peter Szalai is a teacher in the Oak Harbor School District.

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