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Teach to the test, or not
March 12, 2012 11:53 AM   Subscribe

A Didactic Tale to Illustrate Just How Much the (new NYC) Teacher Rating System Pisses Me Off.
posted by roomthreeseventeen (69 comments total) 10 users marked this as a favorite

 
At the end of the essay, the author wonders why so much money goes into ridiculous testing that used to go into art, music, and libraries. I think I know the answer: it's because the wealthiest people in the country would like nothing more than to gut public education - it makes their own children's private education worth that much more.
posted by Dr.Rhetoric at 12:19 PM on March 12, 2012 [8 favorites]


That kid is missing what they use to call employability skills when I was in middle school. A big part of getting ahead in an institutional setting is buckling down and doing stupid things for a period of time. Will she do the same thing when she's taking her SATs or PSATs and scholarship money is on the line? Will she sigh and not do the work when she's assigned a menial task in her first job? Ultimately the kid was disrespectful toward her teacher, who will be the only person to suffer as a result.
posted by 2bucksplus at 12:24 PM on March 12, 2012 [5 favorites]


Yeah the child is obviously the problem.
posted by clarknova at 12:27 PM on March 12, 2012 [13 favorites]


A big part of getting ahead in an institutional setting is buckling down and doing stupid things for a period of time.

Of all the cultural narratives with which we acculturate children, I can't see how "Sit down, shut up, do what you're told" is something they're not getting enough of. Sure, it's important to know to expect that their non-commercially-valuable intelligence, creativity, and personal character will be considered irrelevant nonsense in the adult world, but I think that teaching kids the importance of diligence and hard work is more important than teaching them to expect to be a miserable cog.
posted by clockzero at 12:32 PM on March 12, 2012 [10 favorites]


Will she sigh and not do the work when she's assigned a menial task in her first job?

So, here's the thing. Why should she? This is a serious question. In a job, you get a menial task, which you may not want to do, but you will be paid, and this is your motivation to do the menial task. If you don't want to do it, you can, for example, go find a new job. (I'm talking in theory, not the realities of a particular person in a particular job in a particular economic climate.)

These kids have zero motivation, zero, to take these tests and do well. "It will affect the funding for your school" is, frankly, more than a little abstract, and barely affects an individual student. Hell, my own academic history is a mess because grades didn't motivate me, and here we don't even have that.

When scholarship money's on the line, college is in your near future, and - hopefully - you recognize that and it motivates you to do your best. These things, though? They're just the culmination of an awful series of insanely boring contentless test-drills. That's not motivation; that's a recipe for resentment and intentional failure.
posted by Tomorrowful at 12:33 PM on March 12, 2012 [13 favorites]


That kid is missing what they use to call employability skills when I was in middle school.

Yeah, me too. Thank god, though, you know? Once you develop those employability skills, somebody is all too likely to come along and (shudder) employ you.
posted by steambadger at 12:36 PM on March 12, 2012 [4 favorites]


I can sympathise with teacher's frustrations here. The tests were not designed to measure whether good teachers were succeeding in helping kids excell. They were designed to check on whether crap teachers were doing enough to ensure kids left school with basic literacy and numeracy. I don't think the latter is a solved problem we can safely ignore. If I had a magic wand my preferred solution might be to change America into Norway, where being a teacher is a respected, well remunerated, and arduous profession to enter. But I don't got that wand. I'd be a lot more interested in thinking out how we changed that than in another test bitchery session.
posted by Diablevert at 12:37 PM on March 12, 2012 [2 favorites]


It's almost like a system designed to pump out Prussian civil servants isn't viable or relevant anymore.
posted by The Whelk at 12:37 PM on March 12, 2012 [29 favorites]


Also, because a test is an insult to the intelligence of some subset of the students doesn't necessarily make it without value. If you are being taught effectively, of course the test will be easy, but not everyone is. Think of it this way; if we test the blood pressure of 100 patients and we find that 10 of them require treatment, was it a waste of time for the other 90?

Now, what would help in this situation is to explicitly forbid districts from doing any test prep whatsoever, since that just ruins the curriculum and subverts the test... but it won't be done because it would send scores plummeting.
posted by Mitrovarr at 12:39 PM on March 12, 2012


That kid is missing what they use to call employability skills when I was in middle school.

I think that kid is also missing the minimum age to be employed.

seriously, the kid's teacher talked to her about learning to do things you don't want to do - which is a task most people master somewhere around the late teens. I don't think it's strange than an 8 year old might not be as mature as an employable adult.
posted by jb at 12:41 PM on March 12, 2012 [3 favorites]


That kid is missing what they use to call employability skills when I was in middle school.

That's because 1) she's 9 years old, and 2) part of a made up story that never happened.
posted by 23skidoo at 12:42 PM on March 12, 2012 [10 favorites]


That said, I used to love all manner of standardized tests, because I really enjoyed colouring in the little circles on the special marked-by-computer paper. I don't suppose that I had as much intelligence to insult.
posted by jb at 12:42 PM on March 12, 2012 [1 favorite]


Ha. Nineteen years as a professional software developer, and I'm apparently still not as mature as an employable adult. Sit me down at a desk and tell me to do some boring crap, and.... my eyes will glaze over, my brain will slip off to the side, and hours will pass while I think about anything but the bullshit I'm supposed to be working on. I simply can't force myself to pay attention to boring, tedious work.

Of course this trait causes me problems from time to time, but in the long run, do you really want to spend your oh-so-limited hours of life grinding away on boring crap work? Why put up with it? If your job sucks, find something else to do. If you really need the job, that will create its own motivation.
posted by Mars Saxman at 12:49 PM on March 12, 2012 [3 favorites]


I would not admonish my own daughter for refusing to do inane bullshit like this. Why can an 8-year-old stand up against a broken system but an adult teacher can't?
posted by tylerkaraszewski at 12:51 PM on March 12, 2012


Now that's someone who's prepared to live their life!
posted by Slackermagee at 12:51 PM on March 12, 2012


What we've got here is a budding Perl programmer.
posted by benito.strauss at 12:56 PM on March 12, 2012 [7 favorites]


It's almost like a system designed to pump out Prussian civil servants isn't viable or relevant anymore.

The system designed to pump out Prussian civil-servants was designed by philosophers proto-Romantics... it's important to remember that the most artistic, scientific, and dynamic culture going into the 20th century was Bismarck's Germany. The characterization of the Germany educational system as being designed to produce drones is way too simple-minded... but it was definitely informed by the desire to create a common sense of identity for a nation composed of a crazy-quilt of principalities that happened to share a similar language... much like the U.S.
posted by ennui.bz at 12:58 PM on March 12, 2012 [12 favorites]


So about that last paragraph...

Washington State, right before I moved here, used to use the Iowa Test of Basic Skills or some such. That cost $9 per student. When I moved here and got into teaching, we switched to the WASL (who cares what it stands for), and it cost $19 per student. That right there told me everything I ever needed to know about standardized testing.

Beyond that: At the middle & high school levels, these tests disrupt the entire school for a week or more. Remember, it's not just about having to take time out to take the test, or even just about "teaching to the test" (which, yes, is really lame and frustrating for us teachers). These tests create logistical nightmares for every school: What do you do with the students who aren't taking the test? How do you make sure they come to class? What could you possibly do in a mixed-grade class during one of these tests that would be worthwhile? How do you adjust the class schedule -- do you just cancel some classes altogether? Shorten classes across the board to make things equitable (in which case every 30 minute class becomes a joke)?

I get that standardized testing can have its uses. But the degree to which we lean on them is idiotic, and everybody knows it including the people pushing standardized testing.
posted by scaryblackdeath at 12:58 PM on March 12, 2012 [2 favorites]


Think of it this way; if we test the blood pressure of 100 patients and we find that 10 of them require treatment, was it a waste of time for the other 90?

But the cost of a blood pressure test is effectively zero. This is more like cancer screening. It has a high cost, and that can outweight the benefits. There can even be false positives. Which is why they've started recommending against screenings for some cancers.
posted by zabuni at 1:03 PM on March 12, 2012 [1 favorite]


also:
"I realize you don't like the tests. But there are going to be lots of things in this world that you don't like, and sometimes you just have to suck it up. You're smart, but you still have to do what you have to do. It's part of life."
This is a goddamned lie. Why should that little kid have to shoulder the fears of her teachers and the madness of her society as moral burdens: "you have to do what you have to do."

No, you don't. You have the right to refuse and face the consequences, if you don't have the moral right to refuse then you have no rights at all.
posted by ennui.bz at 1:05 PM on March 12, 2012 [2 favorites]


"Why can an 8-year-old stand up against a broken system but an adult teacher can't?"

One of them has bills to pay.
posted by oddman at 1:06 PM on March 12, 2012 [23 favorites]


I would not admonish my own daughter for refusing to do inane bullshit like this. Why can an 8-year-old stand up against a broken system but an adult teacher can't?

Because us adult teachers need our jobs, our health insurance, our good reputations (with which we could hopefully find new jobs)... I can imagine risking my career on principle, but that principle would have to involve something criminal -- exposing child abuse or something like that.

This? This is all really stupid, and we all know it. But nobody's going to die over it. Some might be scarred for life by their test results, but that sort of stuff happens as you grow up, anyway. We teachers do stand up against this stuff as much as we reasonably can. We are not enough alone.
posted by scaryblackdeath at 1:08 PM on March 12, 2012 [2 favorites]


Also, as this is sort of an elephant in the room with regards to education:

We scream about teachers and talk about changing our schools because they're the factors that society & government can actually control. We cannot really effectively reform how parenting is done in America. We cannot legislate students into being interested in their own education. Both of these factors -- sincere, good-faith parental involvement and the interest of the student -- vastly outweigh anything the teachers can do.

Yet we can't control that, so we treat our teachers like they should somehow be able to overcome all this, and when they don't, we disdain them for...what? For being shitty at mind control? Regardless of how awesome and inspirational and insightful I may be as a teacher, in the end that student and his/her parent(s) still have to decide to give a damn.

(This, of course, is to say nothing of the ones who have serious learning disabilities, are hamstrung by poverty, etc.)
posted by scaryblackdeath at 1:13 PM on March 12, 2012 [14 favorites]


Some might be scarred for life by their test results, but that sort of stuff happens as you grow up, anyway

Except the issue here is that the child's refusal to continue with the test affects the teacher's professional career.
posted by roomthreeseventeen at 1:17 PM on March 12, 2012


I remember when I was a sophomore in high school there was a change wherein all classes were required to have a final exam. I had to take a final exam for band. For effing band. When I took the test, I could tell that the band director shared my opinion about how ludicrous this was as the test included this question:
    What is a sforzando?
  1. A castle
  2. A castle with a moat
  3. A strong attack on a note
The entire test, for which the class was allotted an hour and a half, I finished in just under 20 minutes, but only because I checked my work. There was also a practical exam wherein I had to play some things for the director. Mind you, earlier that year I had landed a seat in the state Wind Ensemble. I was asked to play a concert Eb scale. I played Eb blues. I was asked to play a concert Bb minor scale. I asked whether he wanted natural, harmonic, or melodic. He told me I was done.

When I was a junior, I had to take the same test. I mean, it was identical to the previous one. I finished it in 7 minutes and went home.

What did I learn from this? Uniform rules applied with inflexibility cause problems at the far ends of the scale. Believe me when I say that I'm not looking forward to either of my kids being subjected to the MCAS test because they are at polar opposites of the spectrum. My preschool son can count to over 300 and my second grade daughter with Down syndrome can count to 20 reliably - and we're very proud of both of them for that. My son is exactly the kind of child who will break his pencil and stare the teacher down. Unless you can convince him, it is nigh impossible to get him to do something that he has decided he doesn't like. His sister is more likely to want to talk to the proctor about her family.

Here is an example of what happened with the MCAS being applied to another woman with Down syndrome. The article soft-pedals what had happened - Tracey had been accepted at Johnson and Wales and had her acceptance rescinded because she was granted an alternate diploma. She had started high school before the MCAS was mandatory, but when she finished it was and she was not grandfathered. Don't think about it too hard, it doesn't make sense. I sat at lunch with her and her mom at the MDSC conference in 2004 on my daughter's birthday and I got a lot of the back story from her mom. Tracey was looking at me and Alice, who I had just fed. I asked Tracey if she wanted to hold Alice. I have a picture of that and to me that moment cements in my mind how poorly the state served Tracey.
posted by plinth at 1:18 PM on March 12, 2012 [7 favorites]


These tests create logistical nightmares for every school: What do you do with the students who aren't taking the test? How do you make sure they come to class? What could you possibly do in a mixed-grade class during one of these tests that would be worthwhile? How do you adjust the class schedule -- do you just cancel some classes altogether? Shorten classes across the board to make things equitable (in which case every 30 minute class becomes a joke)?

I don't have any idea how it works now, but when I was a kid, you took your standardized tests at the end of the year (after regular classes ended, but before summer vacation).
If you had a test, you showed up to school, if you didn't then you stayed home.
There were morning and afternoon sessions, and the buses ran normally.

I mean, I understand there are reasons to dislike testing, but it seems a pretty solved problem to arrange a testing schedule.
posted by madajb at 1:21 PM on March 12, 2012 [1 favorite]



Beyond that: At the middle & high school levels, these tests disrupt the entire school for a week or more

I wish teaching to the test only took away two weeks of one's cirriculum. For FCAT we did 8 hour remediations every Friday for 9 weeks, we also concentrated on the elements of the test from the beginning of the Spring Term (January) through March when everyone stopped everything in school and we tested for 3 days. Even subjects that weren't FCAT specific (Math and Reading) were told to incorporate FCAT elements into their lesson plans. So in Biology you did reading comprehension and mathematical stuff.

We were told that afternoon classes should be light and easy as the morning tests were too grueling. Word. Proctering the tests was a hassle, let alone having to take the damn thing. Luckily, I can make a lesson plan out of anything, especially The Simpsons.

We fed the kids pepermints because they were said to aid in memory and alertness. I gave shoulder rubs to anyone who wanted one. Poor things.

At the end of it all, what did we get? D. My school was a D.

Clearly, by the measure that mattered to the district, my school, and by extension, the teachers, were failures. Personally, I didn't see a reason to stick around after that.
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 1:23 PM on March 12, 2012


Except the issue here is that the child's refusal to continue with the test affects the teacher's professional career.

I have a colleague who runs a calm, productive computer skills classroom in a middle school. Fairly affluent environment. One day he had a kid haul off and punch another in class. The administrator in charge rolled his eyes at both kids, suspended them both for 3 days... and spent considerably more time admonishing the teacher for "letting his classroom get to that point."

It's middle school. Sometimes kids misbehave. Sometimes that misbehavior escalates to a punch or two. But again, this is how it often works in education: two kids bring a beef from outside your classrom into your classroom, and then if anything happens, clearly it's the teacher's fault.
posted by scaryblackdeath at 1:24 PM on March 12, 2012 [1 favorite]


I don't have any idea how it works now, but when I was a kid, you took your standardized tests at the end of the year (after regular classes ended, but before summer vacation).
If you had a test, you showed up to school, if you didn't then you stayed home.
There were morning and afternoon sessions, and the buses ran normally.


Issues that run against this at various schools:
*We have a shortened calendar already because of budget cuts. Make this time count!
*75% or more of our students are on free or reduced lunch. Many literally won't get breakfast or lunch if they don't come to school.
*We are legally liable for what amounts to child care during these hours. We can't legally let them stay home.
*The later in the year you hold these tests, the more likely kids are to simply not show up. It's just a test to measure the teachers, right? It hardly affects us, so why should we care? (You might be amazed at how many kids know this is more about the teachers than it is about them. Hell, I tell them myself if it comes up; I don't believe in keeping secrets from students about how the world works.)


We were told that afternoon classes should be light and easy as the morning tests were too grueling. Word. Proctering the tests was a hassle, let alone having to take the damn thing. Luckily, I can make a lesson plan out of anything, especially The Simpsons.

I, too, am all for just letting things go easy after these tests on a given day. I've been in many a school where the word from on high is to make sure that class time on test days is relevant and important, both so as not to waste school time and so as to make sure kids actually show up. (Who cares if they're mentally worn out, right? Seat time is funding time!)
posted by scaryblackdeath at 1:31 PM on March 12, 2012 [1 favorite]


The best definition of being a grownup that I ever heard was doing something you don't want to do, because you know it's the right thing to do.

I do think it's (unfortunately) the teacher's job to make these tests interesting or valuable for the kids somehow, until the day finally comes when we can make these ridiculous tests go away. A smart kid who fails for whatever reason is still demonstrating failure, and potentially seriously hurting her future. But it's totally unreasonable to expect a child to inherently understand what's in her best interests.
posted by Mchelly at 1:32 PM on March 12, 2012 [1 favorite]


Once upon a time I taught in an inner city school for many years. I tried, and most of my students tried, but, alas, the test scores of my students clearly indicated that I was a bad teacher.

One year I moved to a school with an entirely different group of children. The school was so good that you had to audition to get in. I did not have to bother with test prep; the students had dutifully tested well for years. And, lo, in this manner I miraculously became a great teacher, a wonder to behold.

Seriously, when our students enroll they have to sign a pledge to take The Test, because of the fear of families "opting out," which brings down our all-important Special Numbers.

Testing begins tomorrow at 7:35 AM. Poor things. I am not looking forward to it either. The rules become more draconian every year. We proctors are not allowed to read during the hours of testing, which, as those of you with similarly restless minds can imagine, is not fun.
posted by kozad at 1:38 PM on March 12, 2012 [4 favorites]


Back in the early 80s my home state of Tennessee had a governor that wanted to come up with a new way of ranking teachers. Governor Lamar Alexander's plan boiled down to one main point, a better educated teacher was a better teacher. As a result, teacher salaries, promotions, and performance ratings became tied to how many classes they took beyond basic teaching certifications. Those that got a Master's were considered "Master Teachers" and were the end goal.

I know all this because my parents were public school teachers back then and I remember hearing the endless rants and conversations about how ridiculous it was to jump through these stupid hoops to get credit hours to be a "Master Teacher." I saw both of my parents cut back on lesson plans and things that required intense take home grading so they could have time to do their schoolwork. Heck, I learned to cook by third grade so I could help my folks out. My mom made it through before burnout took her, while my dad gave up in insane frustration and went to administration.

Among my friends, Master Teacher became the biggest insult we could hurl at a teacher because every single one we had from grade school until high school was a useless bump on a log. Those were the teachers that taught the same exact syllabus since 1980, the teachers that put up the same overhead transparencies they'd used since 1970, the teachers that never were going to engage with us regardless of the level of education they had.

Really, the only thing I ever learned from these Master Teachers is that it doesn't really matter how good you are at your job provided you've got a spiffy piece of paper.
posted by teleri025 at 1:40 PM on March 12, 2012


Issues that run against this at various schools:
*We have a shortened calendar already because of budget cuts. Make this time count!
*75% or more of our students are on free or reduced lunch. Many literally won't get breakfast or lunch if they don't come to school.
*We are legally liable for what amounts to child care during these hours. We can't legally let them stay home.
*The later in the year you hold these tests, the more likely kids are to simply not show up. It's just a test to measure the teachers, right? It hardly affects us, so why should we care? (You might be amazed at how many kids know this is more about the teachers than it is about them. Hell, I tell them myself if it comes up; I don't believe in keeping secrets from students about how the world works.)


1) I don't know if the the days taking tests counted against your instructional days or not.
So if you were supposed to be in school 150 days, I don't know if it was 150 days + 7 testing days or 150 days including testing days.
2) I'm pretty sure the cafeterias were open. It may have been only cold food though.
3) OK , but if the state is setting the testing schedule, that's something that can be worked out surely?
4) I'm not sure how absences were handled. In large part, these tests were only of state relevance. You needed to take them to get the "better" diploma, but it didn't really matter to anyone but in-state colleges if you didn't have the better diploma.
posted by madajb at 1:40 PM on March 12, 2012


Really, the only thing I ever learned from these Master Teachers is that it doesn't really matter how good you are at your job provided you've got a spiffy piece of paper.

I spent a good deal of last year working with a student teacher. (I was not her mentor teacher (who is amazing); I was a substitute, but I was in the classroom a LOT because said mentor was battling cancer.) She was going through a concurrent credential/Master of Ed program.

The amount of useless, pointless bullshit she had to do for her masters astounded me. None of it had anything to do with lesson planning, or designing effective assessments or classroom management. (From what I've gathered from my colleagues, classroom management is universally the component that teacher prep programs suck at.) Yet her grad school credential will ultimately outweigh my undergrad-and-credential-with-five-years-experience. I actually felt really bad for her; she wasn't being prepared at all for the sort of things she'll have to deal with as a teacher, and she was paying many thousands of dollars for the privilege.
posted by scaryblackdeath at 1:48 PM on March 12, 2012 [5 favorites]


The girl in question seems to be quite gifted. She'll contribute a lot to society if she doesn't end up totally crushed and nihilist after grinding through years of meaningless charades like this.

Public education isn't built to make smart kids excel, it's built to give everyone a baseline education. A laudable goal, but it can run directly into what it takes to keep gifted kids motivate.
posted by Hollywood Upstairs Medical College at 1:51 PM on March 12, 2012


I remember vividly how self-congratulatory my high school was 23 years ago about having 9 national merit semi-finalists out of a class of 300. The thing is that those kids would've been national merit semifinalists in just about any school you dropped them into if they survived until the test. I'm sure there's some value in a metric that involves not getting your students killed in a four year period, but I'm damned if I can figure out how I'd use that metric to usefully determine teacher salaries. I feel similarly about other standardized tests.
posted by BrotherCaine at 1:58 PM on March 12, 2012


The amount of useless, pointless bullshit she had to do for her masters astounded me. None of it had anything to do with lesson planning, or designing effective assessments or classroom management.

This interests me--my husband is currently in a credential/MEd program. What kind of pointless BS do you mean? (Most of what I've seen in my husband's program does involve lesson planning and assessment, although classroom management, maybe not so much. Fortunately, he's been working as an aide for six years and has a good sense of classroom management from what he's learned on the ground.)

I have to say that I've been reading a lot lately about what's been happening to teachers, and to public education in general, and that it makes me less and less happy about my poor husband's ambition. We've sunk a lot of time and money into his program and he can't turn back now--not to mention that he really does love the work with the kids. (He's interested in teaching as young kids as possible--pre-K or K. In a way I think that's a huge boon because the standardized testing doesn't start until third grade, at least in our state, at least for now. But it's still so sad and so demoralizing that stories like this are what he has to "look forward to.")
posted by dlugoczaj at 2:01 PM on March 12, 2012


I went to grade school in three different countries. Except for a year in a private school when we were in Austria, it was public schools every time - and solidly middle-class neighborhoods.

I simply don't remember any crap like this. We had standardized tests, at least in Canada (my final stop in primary education) but they weren't any big deal, a couple of afternoons here and there, I remember them as quite relaxed.

Generally, I remember a few mediocre teachers but generally a lot of hard-working, caring people who made a lot of kids into better people.

I have in my time had quite a few friends who were teachers in the NYC school system and with one exception, none of them had a good word about it. The exception is a friend of my wife's, a massively dedicated teacher who works in a new science-oriented showcase school somewhere in the Bronx. Listening to him talk about his kids, I get misty-eyed every time.

To me, the testing system is summed up by the fact that we are required to categorize a pretty large percent of humans as "failures" before they are even adults. It's morally abhorrent, it's practically ineffective, there's nothing good to say about it.
posted by lupus_yonderboy at 2:04 PM on March 12, 2012 [1 favorite]


2) I'm pretty sure the cafeterias were open. It may have been only cold food though.

I'm pretty sure the cafeterias are still open nowadays, too. That's not the point. The point is you can't just tell kids who aren't being tested to stay home, because some kids come to school in order to get fed. "Stay home tomorrow" is going to be ignored.

4) I'm not sure how absences were handled. In large part, these tests were only of state relevance. You needed to take them to get the "better" diploma, but it didn't really matter to anyone but in-state colleges if you didn't have the better diploma.


And that's not how test scores are used now, so scheduling is going to be MUCH more important than back in the day when no one really cared about tests. Low test scores can screw a kid out of their summer vacation, can be the difference between a kid going to a good high school or a crappy high school, can get a teacher fired, and can eventually get a whole school's staff replaced. Testing nowadays is so totally different than testing 25 years ago, in every single aspect, even in scheduling.
posted by 23skidoo at 2:09 PM on March 12, 2012


None of it had anything to do with lesson planning, or designing effective assessments or classroom management

This is how naive I was. I thought that if I showed up in a classroom, and engaged my students with really interesting lessons and lectures that I was golden. Let's just say my awakening was quite rude.

Classroom Management is 90% of what you need to know to teach. If you don't have methods for keeping kids in their seats and concentrating on their work, or your lecture, or the lesson, or whatever it is that you're doing, you will have anarchy faster than a cockroach can make off with a Cheeto.

I have a Masters in my subject area, not teaching and while I know all sorts of stuff about Victorian Poetry, I still don't know how to keep a 15 year-old in her chair, doing her work, instead of trying to start a game of spades or putting in someone's weave.

I got better at it, I developed tricks:

Pass papers back sideways, not front to back, or better yet, put papers in a file for the kids to get on their own.

Have a DO NOW on the board for the kids to do as they come in. This gets them in their seats, paper out, pens working.

Don't call people's names when taking roll, just look to see who's there while they are doing the DO NOW.

Have extra paper, pens, tampons, napkins, band aids, safety pins, etc so kids don't need to ask everyone for such items.

Constructive, working, productive talking isn't noise, it's your class learning. Silence is your enemy.
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 2:12 PM on March 12, 2012 [11 favorites]


At the middle & high school levels, these tests disrupt the entire school for a week or more.

This is true in elementary schools too; even the kids who aren't testing because they're too young (give it time! They'll get to pre-k!) can't have their normal recess schedules and go in the same parts of the school because of noise issues.

I teach second grade in DC. This year second graders will begin taking high stakes tests. Part of the problem for this is that in fact the act of testing is more challenging for a lot of second graders than the skills being tested. Another problem is that a lot of my students just LOOK at that much writing and FREAK OUT. It's terrifying if you're a second grader who's way behind in reading and someone's telling you that you have to do this. We have interim testing tomorrow and Wednesday and I already know which one of my (seven year old) kids is going to turn a desk over and lie on the floor because she's being asked to take this test and it's scary and frustrating. It's also really hard to get alternate assessments (which this young lady and several of my students desperately need) and it's even HARDER because she does not yet officially have an IEP even though I referred her to begin the process in September. She will not be tested until later this month and after that the IEP has to be written and signed and everything. She has lost basically a year of school because of how ridiculously fucking long this goddamn process takes. I'm doing my very best but there are a lot of supports (some of them legally guaranteed) that just aren't always in place the way you need them or that just take too much time.
posted by Mrs. Pterodactyl at 2:18 PM on March 12, 2012 [1 favorite]


I've never understood the opposition to standardized testing, unless they're somehow different in the US from the ones we have in Ontario.
If you can't measure something, you can't understand it; and if you don't understand it, you can't improve it.
posted by rocket88 at 2:21 PM on March 12, 2012 [1 favorite]


At the end of the essay, the author wonders why so much money goes into ridiculous testing that used to go into art, music, and libraries. I think I know the answer: it's because the wealthiest people in the country would like nothing more than to gut public education - it makes their own children's private education worth that much more.
That doesn't make any sense. Given two otherwise equal workers, the better educated worker is worth more. Assuming these hypothetical "wealthiest people in the country" aren't stuffing dollar bills under their mattresses, they are storing their dollar bills in the usual financial instruments of ownership - stocks, bonds, derivatives, etc. Their net worth will go up if the companies that they invest in are able to hire local educated workers inexpensively.
posted by b1tr0t at 2:23 PM on March 12, 2012


I don't understand what the point of this post is. Is the teacher saying that this one girl is representative of all students? They're all just giving up midway and reading?

Diversion: I do understand the frustration of being held to something not completely in your control, but if we're saying that teachers can't be held accountable for test scores or some other measure of productivity (is the frustration just the tests themselves?), what then do they view as their value proposition? Just to supervise students until they go home?
posted by jourman2 at 2:24 PM on March 12, 2012


I've never understood the opposition to standardized testing, unless they're somehow different in the US from the ones we have in Ontario.
If you can't measure something, you can't understand it; and if you don't understand it, you can't improve it.


I don't actually mind standardized testing as a tool, but I do mind it as a weapon. It's super easy for it to be used against teachers who are working with really small sample sizes (many of the classes in my school have fewer than twenty kids; can you really extrapolate that much about a teacher's quality from how well they perform on a test?).

In addition, this only works if the tests are geared towards quality data rather than a simple assessment of performance. Some of our tests give us good breakdowns of the skills being tested except for the fact that our students can't read the questions so although I know that my kids can perform certain tasks these don't show up on the test and I'm not allowed to read it out loud to them (even the practice tests).
posted by Mrs. Pterodactyl at 2:26 PM on March 12, 2012


Given two otherwise equal workers, the better educated worker is worth more.

Define "better educated."
posted by Mental Wimp at 2:38 PM on March 12, 2012


If you can't measure something, you can't understand it; and if you don't understand it, you can't improve it.

Why do we need to measure the ability of kids to take tests?
posted by not_that_epiphanius at 2:45 PM on March 12, 2012 [1 favorite]


If you can't measure something, you can't understand it; and if you don't understand it, you can't improve it.

Yes, yes, a thousand times yes. I sympathize with those who hate taking, or giving standardized tests. And the people complaining that test results, in isolation, tell you little more than the affluence of the school district. But when these threads erupt with complaints, I want to grab some people by the lapels and ask "Then how do you propose evaluating teacher performance?" Because if you don't have an idea, you're part of the problem.
posted by ThatFuzzyBastard at 2:45 PM on March 12, 2012


A short list of failings in the MCAS, which are widely considered to be models for the best in the country:

1. Major disruption in classroom time, twice a year.
2. Tests that are insultingly easy for most students, and therefore measure absolutely nothing (I have high school students who don't understand ratios that scored "Advanced" in math).
3. Tests filled with vague, esoteric, or largely incorrect questions/answers.
4. Tests that are written to curriculum frameworks that are 30+ years out of date.

I want to grab some people by the lapels and ask "Then how do you propose evaluating teacher performance?" Because if you don't have an idea, you're part of the problem.

This is stupidly easy and already in place, and I don't know why so many people fail to understand it: performance reviews by supervisors, just like 99% of every freaking job out there. The trick is having good administrators, and that is the real difficult problem. I've been employed in a number of industries from manual labor to biotech, and never once did I have to collate a bunch of effing data every year to keep my job.
posted by Dr.Enormous at 2:50 PM on March 12, 2012 [8 favorites]


But when these threads erupt with complaints, I want to grab some people by the lapels and ask "Then how do you propose evaluating teacher performance?" Because if you don't have an idea, you're part of the problem.

What about something more like adaptive tests? Test where kids are in the beginning of the year and where they are at the end of the year so you can see how much they've actually grown. When you test kids at the beginning of the year and they're below basic and you test them at the end of the year and they're still below basic (especially since there's an extra year of expected learning during that time) you don't know how much they've actually learned. That's what you get when you use standardized tests within grade levels. If you test kids and find out that at the beginning of the year they're at the equivalent of the middle of kindergarten and at the end of the year they're at the equivalent of the beginning of second grade, that's over a year and a half growth which is really impressive, especially for a kid who maybe was behind initially because he or she struggles. That's a teacher who's done a good job but you don't get that information if the kids are still just considered to be "way behind". A fifth grader who reads at a third grade level is WAY better off than a fifth grader who reads at a kindergarten level.
posted by Mrs. Pterodactyl at 2:51 PM on March 12, 2012


I spend a good deal of time working with students in low-stakes testing situations. Ironically enough, it is the application of themselves when given these tasks that has something to say about those lofty outcomes we say the high-stakes tests miss. Here is an excerpt from a proctor manual that I use addressing the faculty concern that students will not perform well and it will reflect badly on them. (note: this assessment is used for accreditation and program evaluation, not student or teacher assessment)

Arguably, educational institutions should instill in their students the habit of devoting due effort to any task that they undertake, whether is taking a course, engaging in volunteer work, or participating in an assessment like the CWRA. In other words, producing students that strive to perform well in all endeavors is itself a goal every educational institution has or should have.

posted by cgk at 2:55 PM on March 12, 2012


What about something more like adaptive tests?

That's actually the direction that most of the analysis is trending towards--the year to year improvement. Of course, what this totally fails to account for is that more advantaged children not only test better and know more in the first place, but they also better at learning, and will therefore also improve more.

This leads to yet more advanced metrics that soon become a largely made-up mush of data without meaning, but at least it's an attempt to be fair. Well, to be fair based on a flawed and pointless premise in the first place, but still.
posted by Dr.Enormous at 2:55 PM on March 12, 2012


In successful schools it is parents who are the evaluator of teacher performance and enforcer of standards. If they don't like what they see, they pressure the principal, they vote out the trustees or school board, they find a different school, or move to a different school district. The system works very well. If you want inner city schools to have access to this, than you need to empower parents with the analogs of the tools that wealthy and suburban parents have -- neighborhood-level school boards with hire/fire authority over faculty, staff and administrators, ease of establishing and disestablishing charters, liberating charters to have selective admission, even outright full or partial school choice.
posted by MattD at 2:55 PM on March 12, 2012


Discussions like these always remind me of an early Frazz strip:

"A child is born
or soon adorned,
with massive lust for learning.
A life of free
discovery
keeps neural embers burning.
Their fervor fuels
itself till schools
attempt to standardize it
and nurse that thrill
of learning till
they thoroughly despise it."

-Jef Mallett


Perhaps the evaluation of teachers should be linked to how they conduct their classrooms, or whether or not they manage to reach out to their students. Perhaps some consideration needs to be given for the school district, the fiscal well-being (or not) of its population, and the resources available to teachers, administrators, and students.

I think there are too many factors that influence a child's education, too many for a single standardized test applied across the board. And to say that one teacher's performance is better than another because of these test scores seems to ignore them.

I admit that teacher evaluation based on observation of the students is subject to as much "gaming" as a standardized test. But personally I would consider a teacher that instills a "lust of learning" in my child to be just as excellent as one that gets my kid to score highly on the SAT.

On preview, one of the drawbacks with beginning- and year-end tests is that in some school districts, summer does a wonderful job of booting out everything learned that year.
posted by CancerMan at 2:56 PM on March 12, 2012 [1 favorite]


If it's an insult to your intelligence, then why not ace it? Believe it or not, it's not an insult to everyone's intelligence. Standardized tests are generally built to hit an average, so that only a small percentage will do extremely well, or extremely poorly.

I understand the feeling that it doesn't capture your true, original potential and all that. But you know, you're unique, just like everyone else. It's a standardized test; it isn't meant to map your entire being onto a page. It's just a way to tell who can read. It can seem dumb to people who take reading for granted. But there are a lot of students out there who really haven't got the hang of reading comprehension yet.

Providing better reading samples and a greater diversity of questions is something I'd be all for. Rejecting the whole idea is perfectly legitimate, but I think requires a whole rethinking of education and perhaps even of worker/professional roles. If there are no standards, what does it mean to go on to the next grade or to graduate? The standards may seem minimal if you tend to hit the higher percentiles, but the tests have to be done for people in all percentiles.
posted by mdn at 2:58 PM on March 12, 2012


If it's an insult to your intelligence, then why not ace it?

Have you met teenagers? Let's just say that according to the data collected today during a mandatory online concussion test, half the student population are already severely brain-damaged (and yes, they did that on purpose).
posted by Dr.Enormous at 3:05 PM on March 12, 2012 [2 favorites]


If it's an insult to your intelligence, then why not ace it?

I know that's what my friends and I did with the Iowa Test growing up. The teachers stressed out over the results, of course, but to us kids it was the day for "that easy test that doesn't matter." But I can picture this girl refusing to play ball when this test has already been fucking with what she enjoys about school. I don't think the story is made up.

The problem with the current standardized evaluation method is at least twofold. First, the value of the data collected is quite suspect. Not only is Teaching to the Test a problematic practice in and of itself, but the results of those tests might not tell us much of anything about what kids are actually learning, much less the quality of schools and/or teachers within them.

Secondly, no matter how valuable the data is, we don't have a good way of applying it to policy. Applied to school funding, if you incentivise better test scores, you take away money from the schools which need it most, and if you go the other way, well, you incentivise worse test scores. On a teacher-to-teacher application, you discourage teachers from taking more challenging classrooms and you burden the teachers with issues that the children bring from home or elsewhere.

I grew up mostly in upper-middle-class, predominantly white schools with tons of funding and the leeway to experiment with tons of different educational models (open concept floorplans, semi-open-concept floorplans, block scheduling, year-round schedule, sixth-grade-only school, ninth and tenth grade only school, 11th and 12th grade only school, etc.) Of course our test scores were high, due largely to money and concerned, involved parents. We had great teachers, for the most part, but all the test scores were going to prove was that nice schools in affluent suburbs are successful, which isn't really a shocker.

But with schools without money, with students whose parents maybe have to work all night and can't go over homework with their kids, or who maybe don't speak much English themselves, especially at home, or who can't pay for private tutroring when their children need it, and on and on and on, where gang life is an inescapable aspect of their environment... in other words, in schools where teachers can make the most difference, have the most positive impact on the kids, those same teachers are the most under scrutiny. And they are being judged by a rubric which doesn't accurately reflect the differences they are making.
posted by Navelgazer at 4:15 PM on March 12, 2012


If there are no standards, what does it mean to go on to the next grade or to graduate?

Getting rid of standardized tests is not the same thing as getting rid of standards.
posted by 23skidoo at 4:16 PM on March 12, 2012 [5 favorites]


Have you met teenagers? Let's just say that according to the data collected today during a mandatory online concussion test, half the student population are already severely brain-damaged (and yes, they did that on purpose).

I remember the public health survey we young teens were forced to fill out in 8th grade. At the tender age of 13, several boys in my class found themselves pregnant, for the first time, with their 5th child, while sharing a room with their grandchild. All this despite the fact that they were virgins who also had sex 8 or more times a week with protection. A damn shame.
posted by maryr at 4:17 PM on March 12, 2012 [4 favorites]


(BTW, doing well on those stupid, pointless Iowa tests earned me a chance to take teh SATs at 13 through John Hopkins' gifted programs and my scores there won me a one course scholarship to a local college, which got me out of half of my gym classes in that same 8th grade year as the pregnant virgin grandfathers. So I'm all for buckling down and taking the gorram tests.)
posted by maryr at 4:19 PM on March 12, 2012


I'm pretty sure the cafeterias are still open nowadays, too. That's not the point. The point is you can't just tell kids who aren't being tested to stay home, because some kids come to school in order to get fed. "Stay home tomorrow" is going to be ignored.

Notwithstanding the fact that school was going to end for the summer the next week anyway, no one took attendance outside of the tests themselves, so a kid could easily come into school if they needed to.

Testing nowadays is so totally different than testing 25 years ago, in every single aspect, even in scheduling.

I'm not sure how that follows. We had half year tests as well, built into Christmas vacation for those unlucky enough to have those classes.
We had an afternoon of testing in elementary school every other year in the fall.
It just wasn't the wholesale disruption that is being alluded to above so I'm curious how it became so.
posted by madajb at 5:36 PM on March 12, 2012


It's slightly odd to be reading this after posting a note on my teacher Facebook and twitter pages encouraging my kids to get some sleep before their High School Exit Exam test tomorrow.

I would comment more, but I need to get some sleep so I can do something more effective to their scores than the six weeks of mandated test prep we did: bring food to school and cook them breakfast that didn't come out of a drive-through window, and isn't made by a kid who failed this same test a few years ago, before dropping out to deep fry corn syrup.

That's how I fight the system.
posted by guster4lovers at 11:07 PM on March 12, 2012


neighborhood-level school boards with hire/fire authority over faculty, staff and administrators,

Why yes! Never in the history of public schooling has this ever been used to fire politically unflavored "outsiders" in favor of hiring the less-than-qualified friends and relatives of the local parents! /snark

Extending basic civil service protections to teachers exist for a very good reason.
posted by deanc at 5:10 AM on March 13, 2012


I'm not sure how that follows. We had half year tests as well, built into Christmas vacation for those unlucky enough to have those classes.
We had an afternoon of testing in elementary school every other year in the fall.
It just wasn't the wholesale disruption that is being alluded to above so I'm curious how it became so.


I'm not really qualified to explain "how it became so," but an afternoon of standardized testing every other year is just not how it goes anymore. I graduated from (public) high school in 2006. Standardized testing really started to pick up steam noticeably in 7th or 8th grade, at which point I was taking state mandated two-day long test A at the beginning of the year and then again at the end of the year, state (or maybe federally?) mandated one-day long test B every year, and state mandated two-day long test C every other year. (This is besides finals and midterms which were given in individual classes, and besides optional tests like the pre-SAT/SAT or pre-ACT/ACT.)

Because in my middle school and high school each student had a different schedule and classes were mixed by grade levels and the whole grade had to take the test at the same time in one or two central locations, to cycle all grades in the building through these tests meant at least a week of classes that were completely disrupted during every test cycle (so, 4-5 times a year) for both the students who were and were not taking the tests at any given time. Since these tests were taken seriously as a heart attack, students were not allowed to leave the classroom while a test was in session (even if they were not taking the test themselves.) Vocational kids had to skip their off-campus classes altogether usually, since they weren't allowed to be coming and going out of the building. Students who were absent had to miss more class to make the test up.

And this was 5-10 years ago. This was before standardized testing really peaked and (I believe?) before testing was widely used to decide individual school funding/ as a teacher performance tool.
posted by geegollygosh at 7:21 PM on March 13, 2012


Some of the proposals here to replace standardized nationwide testing are good, but it's worth understanding why they *aren't* the case.

DrEnormous says: "performance reviews by supervisors, just like 99% of every freaking job out there"

But teacher's unions object very strongly to firing being done on the basis of a supervisor's say-so. And that's part of how testing came onto the table---teachers' unions could agree (grudgingly) to allowing administrators to fire teachers if there was some objective measure to show underperformance.

Mrs. Pterodactyl says: "What about something more like adaptive tests? Test where kids are in the beginning of the year and where they are at the end of the year so you can see how much they've actually grown."

And that's sort of what we used to have, where you monitored a teacher's performance in comparison to other teachers in the district, and student performance from beginning to end of the year. The problem is that this allowed chronic underperformance to flourish---if your fifth grade class came in reading at a first-grade level, and left reading at a second-grade level, adaptive testing makes it look like your school is doing just fine when in fact your school is chronically failing. This is "the soft bigotry of low expectations" that ed reformers on the right and left were warning about through the adaptive testing years, and much of the point of NCLB was to provide some way of telling what school districts were behind the national average, so we don't have districts where failure is normal, and therefore acceptable.

And finally, MattD says: "If you want inner city schools to have access to this, than you need to empower parents with the analogs of the tools that wealthy and suburban parents have"

But it's something of a truism in the ed world that students with involved parents will do just fine wherever they are. The question is how do you help kids whose parents *aren't* interested in or able to use those tools. That's really what this whole discussion is about!

(not to mention, as we can see above, the instant parents start using those tools to demand action on failing teachers, folks like deanc will object that the parents are pursuing vendettas with no relevance to education)

Nationwide standardized testing came about, not as a conspiracy to destroy public education (I assure you that Ted Kennedy, one of the original architects of NCLB, was not trying to crush unions), but because it seemed like the least-bad option. I would love to hear a less-bad option. But so far, many of those objective just seem to be retracing the same path we've already walked, with no suggestions for how to do it better this time.
posted by ThatFuzzyBastard at 7:24 AM on March 14, 2012


Sorry, "many of these objections", I mean.
posted by ThatFuzzyBastard at 7:59 AM on March 14, 2012


But teacher's unions object very strongly to firing being done on the basis of a supervisor's say-so. And that's part of how testing came onto the table

This is ridiculous. First off, you have essentially no protections during your first X years of employment (varies by location), which is how the system has always been and still is, and your continued employment depends entirely on evaluations. The unions have never made any real effort to fight this, because everybody knows that people need a trial period.

Secondly, after that point the union will fight to help you keep your job, because it's literally their job to do that, but bad teachers (or good ones the administration doesn't like) can still be pushed out much more easily than the media would have you believe; it happens all the time all over the country. Think of it like the court system--the defense lawyer is a necessary part of the process even if the person is guilty as heck and their lawyer knows it. That doesn't mean the union (on the whole) thinks that bad teachers should keep their jobs, and suggestions otherwise are inane.

All of this comes back to one thing: administrators. Good administrators mean that only good teachers will get tenure, and even tenured bad teachers will receive low evaluations and be fired. Bad administrators mean their friends will be given cushy jobs and free run of the school. Anybody who's been around education for a while has examples of both. Testing accomplishes absolutely nothing, for the million reasons that 99% of educators in the country have happily rehashed every single time this comes up*. Identification, training, and hiring of quality administration fixes things without having to rehaul the whole system to no effect. But that's hard, and doesn't generate revenue for the testing companies.


*My favorite is some of the local schools near me--some of the best in the country--failing to meet AYP because they didn't make it from 99% to 100%
posted by Dr.Enormous at 7:34 PM on March 14, 2012 [2 favorites]


DrE: I'll step away from the historical claims, as I don't have the time to do the research that would confirm or deny. But a couple points do stand out:

First, yes, it's true that teachers have little protection during their early years of teaching. But that isn't all that relevant---if a teacher is good for the first five years, starts to coast by year 8, and has completely stopped trying by year 10---a pretty common pattern in many jobs--- that teacher's students are going to have a serious problem, and early evaluation won't help. And if you're going to tell me it's relatively easy to fire underperforming teachers who have seniority, well, I'm gonna call you deluded.

Second, regarding the union: Saying it's literally their job to help a teacher keep their job is a pretty apt summary of where public sector unions, and especially teacher's unions, have gone so terribly wrong. It is *not* their job to prevent employees from being fired. It is their job to make sure that employees under threat of firing have a fair and open process for determining whether they should be fired. If a union thinks it's job is to keep employees from being fired, that union will be in the business of defending bad teachers, and therefore that union will be working to degrade the quality of the profession.

You're very much right that administrators are a big part of the problem. So how does one evaluate administrators without testing to determine whether students are learning? Please don't say "reports by the teachers"---if it's the administrator's job to make sure bad teachers are fired, bad teachers will have a powerful incentive to deliver negative reports on administrators who don't support them. And please don't say there are no bad teachers, 'cause that's just dumb.
posted by ThatFuzzyBastard at 10:23 AM on March 19, 2012


You can call me deluded, but you're wrong. For one, I owe my current job to exactly that scenario, and anybody who has been around a school with either decent administration or vindictive administration long enough has plenty of examples. The only protection tenure offers in most modern public school systems is that you can't be immediately fired for one bad evaluation--you have to have had the opportunity to improve first. Sure you can dig up this article or that about some incompetent hack (usually in the NYC system, because the New Yorker loves these stories and the NYC system is gargantuan) who has been on the way out for a decade, but these are newsworthy exactly because they're not the norm. Secondly, you have to have somebody demonstrably better to replace that person with, which in some areas and subjects is simple, but in others is not (put it this way: with my degree and experience, I wouldn't be hurting for a job at literally twice my salary, with better benefits, in the private sector). High turnover can very quickly make things worse for the students unless there is a significant increase in quality that goes along with it.

Of course, that's all pretty irrelevant, since the testing is worthless anyway. In fact, I was just administering the MCAS today. The testing for a single MCAS (students will take more than one during the year), including pre-adminitration, uses up a total of 13-15 hours of instructional time, but actually costs more class time because of classes with multiple students missing, and the disruption in schedule and locations preventing planned activities in other classes from taking place. Barring a significant downturn, essentially all of our students will pass on the first attempt, because the test is so moronically easy that only the completely illiterate and new english speakers can fail it. The ones who might fail are either so incredibly far gone with AD(H)D that writing a whole sentence is a challenge (but they're in normal classes of 25) or have severe anger issues probably stemming from an incredibly effed-up home situation. Fortunately, there stats won't count against me.

A few students spend all day writing incredibly carefully-crafted essays, for which they will receive an advanced rating that entitles them to a small scholarship to the state schools that they will not be going to anyway, and has no other benefit. Many of the students won't bother because they know that they pretty much can't fail and it actually has no impact on their lives. One guy did produce some very elaborate cartoon doodles, though, so I guess that's something?

The test also likes to ask multiple choice questions with subjective answers, which is always good for a laugh. When all is said and done, there will be a nice little report generated about our school that will say absolutely nothing of value. I know, because I read those reports. A colleague of mine likes to say that you could assign a grade to each student at the end of each quarter without doing any math or looking at any test scores, and he's absolutely right; my numerical grades from testing almost never diverge from completely subjective observational assessments (I teach a subject with absolute correct and incorrect answers, so it is not my bias affecting this either). At best these things confirm what everybody already knows to begin with. At worse they punish disadvantaged students and their teachers, and reward the privileged.

(And I'll thank you not to assume my responses. If you're too busy arguing with your own "union gone bad" strawman to bother considering the actual experiences of people who live this every day, why bother?)
posted by Dr.Enormous at 6:10 PM on March 21, 2012


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