The Seeker

A Meta-Cognitive Journal About Writing… Plus Other Stuff

Testing for Failure pt.2

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continued from yesterday…

Test taking in general is fraught with an unbelievable set of variables.  In no particular order, a student’s test score can be influenced by poor weather conditions, a lack of sleep the night before because they were up playing video games or texting with a friend, they didn’t eat breakfast, they are apathetic about school, they see no immediate application of the test results, they are pissed at me for whatever reason, or (and this is a VERY popular one among younger students) they dislike me and think that failing the test will fail me.  After twenty years of teaching and seeing students act out by refusing to take a test or to take a test seriously, the dreams of millions of students have finally come true.  If they fail their PERA test, they can directly influence the performance evaluation of a teacher.  There is no way we can make them take a test seriously and give their best effort.  And it’s dangerous to underestimate the level of hatred (or at least distrust) many at-risk students have for their local school.  It runs through the generations to the point where it’s almost a phenotype.  Their parents didn’t like or trust the local school because of so many negative experiences, and even the students themselves have had 8-10 years of negative school experiences.  In many ways, measuring teachers by test scores is similar to measuring doctors by their “cure” rate.  But doctors don’t have any control of patients taking their medication, changing an unhealthy lifestyle, or even being interested in their own wellness.

I should mention that there is no plan in place for supervision of testing for the test that counts for comparison scores.  This is one area where tests such as the ACT and SAT really get it right.  Testing conditions are highly regulated.  Cheating is so rare that when it makes news, it usually makes big news for the mere fact of how much effort and conniving it takes to cheat on the test.  But there is little or even no regulation for teachers who might literally feed students answers.  I’ve already said that I feel like my test is The Gospel According to Burd because the questions are based on things I already know I’m going to say over and over and over this semester.  So “feeding” students answers is part of my regular teaching routines if students are paying attention.  But if, for instance, a teacher uses an online article and set of questions for their test, and those are pretty easy to find for any particular discipline, there is almost nothing that can be done to prevent that same teacher from revisiting the same article multiple times throughout a semester until their students have mastered the content and questions.  There is nothing that can be done about students who are wise to the system and can find the article on their own and repeat it ad infinitum.

I was in a meeting last week in which a colleague noted that nobody has brought up the “I Don’t Know” option.  We’re supposed to be giving a test on skills the students have little clue about, yet they can still guess an answer and get it right on multiple-choice questions.  If that guess is a right answer, that right answer counts against me.  But nobody talked about one of the multiple choice answers being “I Don’t Know” when a test is initially given.  Instead, we tell students the same things we tell them when they take the ACT:  Try to eliminate options until there are only 2 left, and then guess.  Hell, that’s a standard test-taking strategy.  But not for our PERA tests.  That strategy could lead to a teacher losing his job.  So should we go against what we tell students otherwise?  If so, why send contradictory messages?  And what about a discipline in the foreign languages?  This was brought up at the same meeting.  A student might know almost nothing about Spanish, and would bottom-out on a PERA assessment at the start of the year.  But in my discipline, a student already has 15-17 years of English language experiences and could easily decode or make a very good educated guess and stand to get a question right.  If they do so, I stand to show less growth than another teacher and could lose my job.

I recently read an article in The New Yorker about the standardized test cheating scandal in the Atlanta Public Schools.  An interesting quote in the article came from David Berliner, the former dean of the school of education at Arizona State University.  Though Berliner was speaking specifically of No Child Left Behind, his words may be even truer in regard to what Illinois is doing with PERA:

“The people who say poverty is no excuse for low performance are now using teacher accountability as an excuse for doing nothing about poverty.”

PERA isn’t addressing poverty, which is the most significant factor facing public education.  It is creating more testing, which continues to feed the great social sorting machine that is testing.  The poor and non-white students will continue to be separated from the non-poor white students, though the former populates our schools every bit as much as the latter (my school is roughly two-thirds minority).  Politicians (especially “reform” politicians) will continue to beat the drum that public schools are failing and there is nothing they can do to fix that, and they may soon point to the failure of PERA as an example, even though the roll out of the legislation is hamfisted.  The truth is that they aren’t willing to do what it takes to fix public schools.

I fear that what will ultimately happen with PERA is Very Little.  I can promise you that if my colleagues and I are already thinking of these pitfalls that many other teachers and districts are thinking of them, too, and some of them may not act with the same degree of integrity that I attribute to many of  my colleagues and myself.  Instead of hurrying under-performing teachers out of public schools, it has the potential to create another way for them to protect themselves.  Am I worried?  Of course.  I don’t like walking around with a target on my back, and I don’t like working in a system that is consistently tying my hands while outside influences continually change the rules of how the public education game is played.  But I don’t have a choice.  I’m not going to quit.  I love my job too much, and believe too strongly in the good that comes from public education.  I guess I’ll drift towards the ultimate teacher refuge.  I’ll close my door and teach.

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Written by seeker70

September 16, 2014 at 12:08 am

Posted in Uncategorized

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