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Posted at 05:00 AM ET, 05/20/2011

Principal: ‘Kids, it’s you and your teacher against the test’

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This was written by Carol Corbett Burris, principal of South Side High School in New York. She was named the 2010 New York State Outstanding Educator by the School Administrators Association of New York State.

By Carol Corbett Burris

My work day starts at 7:25 am, when begin walking reluctant students toward extra help at the high school where I’m the principal. The students who need that help are a motley crew—many receive free or reduced-priced lunch, others have learning disabilities, some have jobs and don’t have the time for homework. Others just don’t like doing school work. Each of them knows, however, that they will be greeted with encouragement by a teacher when they walk through the door for the help they need.

No matter what these students face in the rest of their lives, school is the place for second and third chances. It’s also the place for taking on demanding challenges, knowing that the school’s adults are there to provide support. Yet as I write this at the end of the 2010-11 school year, I know this is about to become much more difficult.

Like most school stories these days, this one involves tests. Our high school’s philosophy has been “kids, it’s you and your teacher against the test.” If students fail an exam, we prepare them to try again. The goal is for students to take the most challenging courses they can, even if their scores are not the best. Our results have been great, with the school selected consistently as one of the top high schools in the United States.

But the school’s student-centered, healthy approach to testing may change dramatically with the recent passage of the New York State Board of Regents’ regulation to evaluate teachers and principals by student test scores. In classrooms all over New York State, it will no longer be “teacher and student against the test” but rather “teacher and test against the student.” This is because under the new teacher evaluation system in New York (and in states across the nation), how students do on the test will play a key role in deciding whether or not teachers and principals keep their jobs.

This approach is trumpeted as judging educators by their performance, which is high-sounding language that may resonate with some people who are not immersed in the daily labor of reaching a wide variety of students in a wide variety of ways. Simply put, a single test given to students of a teacher does an extremely poor job of somehow measuring that teacher’s effectiveness. That our educational leaders don’t understand this is horrifying. And although the New York model technically allows educators to earn up to 60 points for measures other than student achievement scores, the system is rigged so that it is nearly impossible to be rated effective or even “developing” if the test-score components are low. In short, test scores trump all.

The biggest losers of these new evaluation policies, in New York and beyond, will be students. A teacher will look at each student as potential “value added” or “value decreased” – that is as a potential increase or decrease on the score the teacher is ultimately assigned. With his or her job dependent on those students’ test scores, this teacher will now have a set of incentives and disincentives very different than in the past.

For example, I was a Spanish teacher. If I were still teaching today and faced with evaluation by test scores, I would abandon the annual trip to the Goya exhibit and I would cut out the projects that furthered student growth and enriched their understandings of language and culture. How could I dare spend the time? Everything that I would do from September to June would be preparation for a test of dubious value so that I could keep my job.

For teachers with young families and college debt to pay, the student who comes late to class, or who does not do his homework will become a threat to her job security. The troubled child who transfers in will be nervously welcomed. The student with disruptive behavior will be a threat to the scores of the rest of the class instead of a person to be understood and whose needs should be met. The score, not the well-educated child, will become the focus. The pressures will build to engage in exclusionary and non-educative practices designed to improve numbers at the cost of learning. Instead of pushing students to take physics and advanced algebra, schools will discourage weaker students so that the aggregate score for the teacher and principal does not go down.

This isn’t an argument against holding teachers accountable; it’s an argument against holding them accountable for the wrong things and in a way that will result in very negative unintended consequences. I wouldn’t want to teach in that environment, and I wouldn’t want my children or the students at my school to try to learn in that environment; but the incentives for teachers to teach to the test and teach to the best will be unavoidable.

And to what end? For over a decade we have engaged in increased testing with punitive consequences under No Child Left Behind. There is no evidence that the massive outlay in tax dollars and learning time has produced increased learning. SAT scores have not gone up. NAEP scores have remained flat. Remediation rates at community colleges have not gone down. Our students have not improved on international assessments. Rather than acknowledging that testing is not the lever for increased learning, the plan is now to increase the pressure. There will be consequences, but better learning outcomes will not be one of them.

There will also likely be endless lawsuits brought by principals and teachers questioning the fairness and legality of the use of test scores for termination of employment. Yes, the New York State Board of Regents and others will certainly attempt to include all important factors that impact learning in their test-score-based “growth models.” But these models have serious weaknesses.

Models are intended to be simplified versions of reality, but they can be manipulated – and they will invariably leave out important unmeasured (and unmeasurable) elements. Some factors beyond a teacher’s control depress students’ test scores (think here of behavioral issues, traumatic life experiences, drug involvement, or lack of home supervision). Other factors beyond a teacher’s control increase students’ test scores (think here of summer enrichment activities, private tutors, and simple parental help with schoolwork and other learning). These are nonrandom student characteristics, and the growth model’s assignment of students to teachers can be complex and problematic. Similarly, the practical decisions about these assignments are troubling. Should I continue to assign my best teachers the most challenging students, knowing that those students might pull down those teacher’s scores?

The creator of the Colorado growth model, the model that New York will use, never intended it to be a high-stakes measurement device. This is a misuse of that model. That is one reason why 10 prominent education scholars from research universities wrote to the Board of Regents on the eve of their vote to caution them against the proposed policy. Their advice, sadly, was ignored.

If teachers have a choice between working in a district with high wealth and college-educated parents or a struggling district with high numbers of students of poverty, and they know that their employment is dependent upon test scores, which should they choose? Which are most of them likely to choose? While growth models do minimize the effects of poverty on outcomes, those effects remain substantial. Accordingly, one of the many unintended consequences of the new evaluation system will be even less incentive for good teachers and principals to work with the students that need them the most.

On the same day that the new New York teacher evaluation regulations were passed, the state’s new education commissioner, John King, was appointed. His biography in The New York Times notes how he fondly remembers a dynamic teacher who inspired him with Shakespeare and another teacher who engaged him in a creative project. There was no mention of test scores attained. How ironic that test-driven accountability measures will kill the time for such activities, especially in our poorest schools.

Let’s hope that New York’s new education leader will help the Regents rethink this misguided policy and recommend an evaluation system not based on test scores but on the encouragement of approaches to teaching that are associated with increased learning. Let’s hope that they will develop state policies that work to reduce racial isolation in schools and in classrooms and that schools will be challenged to include all students in excellent curriculum, regardless of test scores.

That is how our high school closed the gap, achieved a 99% Regents diploma rate, and made the “top high school” lists published by Newsweek and U.S. News & World Report. We did not need to rank one teacher with a score to do it, and for us each child has always been ‘value added’. We’ll struggle to keep it that way, but our work just got a great deal more difficult.

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