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Posted at 04:00 AM ET, 05/09/2011

Virginia’s ill-advised assessment experiment

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This was written by Mary Tedrow, a National Board Certified Teacher and director of the Northern Virginia Writing Project’s Shenandoah Valley Satellite. She is also a member and past fellow of the Teacher Leaders Network.

By Mary Tedrow

The Virginia Department of Education recently revealed its plan to pilot a new teacher evaluation program that was initially part of the state’s bid to win federal Race to the Top funding. Virginia failed to win the contest for education reform dollars, but the unfortunate experimentation with children’s lives will go forth anyway.

The new plan adds a seventh area of teacher evaluation to the current six: Student Growth. And it comprises 40 percent of teacher evaluations. Twenty percent must be tied to scores students receive on the Virginia Standards of Learning -- though the tests were never designed to assess a teacher’s value (and it remains questionable how well they evaluate how much a student has really learned). The other 20 percent will be left up to each district.

Let’s be clear: This is a bad idea.

This means every teacher in every subject and grade must find a way to measure student growth.

Think about that.

Kindergarten teachers, art teachers, physical ed teachers—all must collect some sort of data both before and after instruction.

Pay-for-performance has become the education quick fix du jour. It seems to make sense: you should only be paying for “results.” But it presumes that teachers are solely responsible for how well a student does on a test, ignoring outside factors that affect performance.

Policymakers need to consider only one question: How will this affect children? The answer: The current models for pay-for-performance promise a horror of testing schedules, beginning in the earliest grades.

In the case of Virginia SOL tests, this would minimally mean beginning-of-the-year assessments in every subject tested, followed by the state measurement at the end—in addition to whatever else is devised. (I have already sat in on one meeting where the purchase of a new, expensive district-level test is already under consideration.)

Picture a child facing a battery of tests implemented at every turn throughout the days, weeks, and months of the school year. Start by imagining a five-year-old sitting still for one assessment after another.

Now imagine the listless, passive graduates who manage to survive such a mind-numbing 13 years in a test-driven system. Nearly every performance plan currently under consideration ensures that the grownups will be focused like a laser on how well the students test.

Please note: People’s livelihoods will depend on scores. If that is not a recipe for corruption, I don’t know what is.

Cheating scandals related to standardized tests have been reported across the country in recent years. And now there are suspicions of mass cheating on D.C. tests during the tenure of former chancellor Michelle Rhee, who is a leader in the pay for performance movement. An unusual level of erasures suggests the manipulation of student scores so that teachers would be assured of their promised performance pay.

In Charlotte-Mecklenburg, N.C., the school system recently field-tested 52 (52!) new standardized tests including four each in kindergarten and first grade. That’s four tests taken by every 5 year and old and 6 year old. Students lost an entire week of instruction to testing. Now multiply that. To see if Teacher A is effective then you must test Teacher A’s children at least twice (times four): once before instruction and again after. There is only so much time available with children. How do you think the grown-ups will be spending that time?

In addition, who creates, scores, and maintains these tests? This promises to divert taxpayer dollars from the classroom to the testing companies. Handing public dollars over to private testing enterprises is outsourcing the intellectual work teachers train to do: evaluate students. It is a waste we cannot afford and promises further dumbing-down of our nation’s classrooms.

Don’t buy the “common-sense” pay-for-performance rationale. This sleight of hand shifts funding away from children. Only grownups, primarily those not working directly with children, will benefit. Corporate profiteers will dive ever deeper into taxpayer pockets. And most important, there will be a fundamental and detrimental alteration of the relationship between children and their adult mentors.

A grassroots march in Washington D.C. is planned for July 30 to Save Our Schools from this testing madness. You can learn more at www.saveourschoolsmarch.org

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