Monday, April 1, 2013

The Smiths and the Folly of Testing

Whenever I read about the foolishness of using standardized tests to evaluate teachers, I am immediately reminded of my own experiences in school, and how even a competent student like me could have done serious damage to otherwise excellent teachers. I understand the danger of generalizing my experience to the larger issue, but I'm sure that I'm not alone, and I know that many teachers face the same issues I have.

Miss Smith was both my algebra and geometry teacher when I was in high school. She was an imposing women who asked great deal from us, and she didn't tolerate either fools or students who didn't want to learn mathematics. She was an excellent teacher in every way. The problem is that I learned very little according to the tests I took in class, and if 50% of her yearly evaluation was based on my, and some of my classmates', performance on a standardized test, then she would have been in real trouble.

But the problem was not hers. The problem was mine. I studied, but algebra was a foreign language and geometry was an alien language. I did my homework. I went after school for help. I just didn't, and couldn't, get it. As the school years progressed, I lost some interest in math, which didn't help my performance in Miss Smith's class. So if I had to take a year-end test that would in any way tell the administration how effective a teacher Miss Smith was, my score would have impacted her evaluation. And that would be a terrible injustice to her.

Do I understand algebra and geometry today, three decades later? Yes and no. Algebra comes easier when I need to use variables in my day-to-day existence. Geometry? Not so much. I continue to try and get it, but it's still an alien language. Miss Smith's fault? Not on your life.

I also had another Smith in high school, but his name was Mister and he taught Earth Science. If you can believe it, I did worse in that class than I did in either of Miss Smith's math classes. And again, the problem was me. There was very little that Mr. Smith could do to help me understand and apply facts and analysis about igneous and sedimentary rocks in a way that made sense to me. My test scores were routinely in the 20s and 30s, which mercifully he curved. Was he as effective a teacher as Miss Smith? No. Quite honestly, he wore a scowl daily, was sarcastic, and it was not always clear that he had all of his faculties while he was teaching. But other students did well in his class and he could be a very good teacher.

I had the power, though, to sink him if I had to take a standardized test that evaluated his abilities as a teacher. I didn't learn much Earth Science and to this day tend to shy away from it, with the exception of plate tectonics, but I don't really understand that all too well. I just like the rings of fire and how new Hawaiian land gets created.

I did well in English and I loved my Shakespeare class and the teacher (not named Smith), but my full Elizabethan flowering didn't come until college. Do I give my professor the credit for getting me interested in the Bard? Of course not. It was my high school teacher, but again, if I had to take a standardized test on Hamlet or the Scottish play, I would not have done so well.

So it is with thousands of students in New Jersey and millions across the United States. They are in our classes and we can teach them, but even the good ones will not always learn everything that's in the curriculum. Or they will do well on certain assignments, but when it comes to synthesis, they either can't or won't do it. They are children and they are unpredictable. The tests they'll take were not meant to evaluate teacher performance.

Further, the standardized tests they'll take mean very little to them, but they will have enormous consequences to the teachers who administer them. Does that make sense? It does to those people who think they're reforming education or believe that America's teachers are failing.

And to them, I can just see Miss Smith's burning gaze falling upon them as she asks the immortal question I heard many times in her class: "How in the ham sandwich did you get an answer like that?"

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