The Washington Post

A Texas school superintendent’s testing dilemma

The following post, written by a Texas school superintendent, appeared on the Living in Dialogue blog of Anthony Cody, who taught science for 18 years in inner-city Oakland and now works with a team of science teacher-coaches that supports novice teachers. Cody is a National Board-certified teacher and an active member of the Teacher Leaders Network. His blog is published on the Education Week Teacher.

Kuhn is superintendent of the Perrin-Whitt Consolidated Independent School District. In this post, Kuhn writes about his recent appearance before Texas legislators — what he said about standardized testing and the grading of teachers and what he wished he had said.

By John Kuhn

I testified before the Public Education Committee of the Texas House of Representatives on behalf of a bill that would initiate a two-year moratorium on standardized testing, known as STAAR in Texas. Here are the remarks I shared before the representatives began asking questions:

“I have a dilemma: I personally believe state testing is morally compromised because TEA [the Texas Education Agency] has overwrought test security to the point that it is a parody of big government interference and micromanagement, because testing has turned the adventure of education into something that feels more like an assembly line, because Austin has nudged our teachers from behind their podiums and has said Pearson [education company] can assess better than they can, because student creativity is being sacrificed in favor of standardization, because scores are used to unfairly punish schools and teachers that embrace the neediest students, and because test scores have been used during the past five years to drive a labeling process that has systematically concealed the fact that some schools are comparatively underfunded. Is a high target revenue “recognized” school really any better than a low target revenue “acceptable” school? Texas has published these labels with no mention of funding disadvantages, leaving the public to assume underperforming schools do so for no other reason than they are less competent institutions. I’m worried STAAR will continue this kind of railroading of our local schools.

“So my dilemma is this: I would prefer that my son not participate in this test, to avoid the weaponization of his data, and the perversion of his education. People say ending testing will water down education. I see test prep as watering down education. But as a superintendent, my school needs my son’s score to help my school’s rating--assuming he will pass. My board would likely not appreciate it if I held my son out of testing. I haven’t decided what I will do.”

The representatives peppered me with some questions during the above statement, some of which I fielded better than others. I wish I’d had a better answer, for example, when Rep. Stama asked how we can measure our schools without using standardized tests. He made the point that school people should be asking for a better accountability system, not the absence of one.

But my biggest error came on a well-placed observation from Rep. Hochberg. After I said we should treat teachers like we want them to treat students, he tossed out this very straightforward and honest point: teachers give students grades all the time...why shouldn’t they be graded?

...This was my opportunity to clearly enunciate what I felt was wrong with how we treat teachers under this system. It was such a perfect moment: here was an earnest questioner, direct but not unkind, asking me in plain English to explain myself and then listening deliberately to my reply. But I couldn’t find the words. “That’s a good point,” was all I could manage, a sheepish reply that made me feel like I had been caught with my hand in the cookie jar, that perhaps the business lobbyists and the school reformers are right and teachers and supporters like me are just whiners who don’t want to be held accountable at all.

Now it’s 12:46 a.m. and ... I’ve finally thought of what I should have said to Rep. Hochberg. If I could go back to that moment... here is what I would say:

“Representative, you make a good point. The state has adopted the role of teacher, and teachers are the students. And this is the root of the problem--you are a bad teacher, and that is why we students are getting rowdy now. That is why we are passing notes to one another saying how mean you are. We are not upset that you grade us. We are upset that your grading system is arbitrary and capricious. We are upset at the way you hang our grades on the wall for everyone to see, instead of laying our papers face down on our desks when you pass them back. We are upset because when you treat us unfairly there is no principal we can go to, to report you for being unjust. There is no one but you and us, ruler and ruled. Your assignments are so complicated and sometimes seem so pointless. You never give us a break, never a free day or a curve. And we heard you in the teacher’s lounge talking about how lazy we are. You stay behind your desk, only coming out to give us work or gripe at us. You never come to our games; you didn’t ask me how I did in the one-act-play.

Rep. Hochberg, the problem isn’t that Texas wants to grade us; the problem is that Texas is THAT teacher, the one who punishes the whole class for the misbehaviors of a few bad apples, who worries more about control than relationships, who inadvertently treats all kids as if they are the problem kids. This approach has made you the teacher all the kids dread. The one who builds fear instead of trust, who never takes late work or asks how our weekend was. You are the teacher and we are the student, and if you want us to mind, you should create a happy classroom, work with us, relate to us, build trust with us, seek our input, and ask our opinions once in awhile. Give us choices. Give us room to experiment and permission to risk new things in your classroom, permission to try and fail without disappointing you.”

For whatever reason, our leaders think tight top-down controls will ensure that teachers do the opposite and produce autonomous, self-directed students. They want subservient teachers producing independent students. But as all teachers know, you must model the behavior you want to see. I warn any of my teachers who may be reading this, do not do unto students as USDE [U.S. Department of Education] does unto you. Teachers who build their classrooms upon a foundation of mistrust will never get greatness out of their students--they will only get compliance. Or rebellion.


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Valerie Strauss covers education and runs The Answer Sheet blog.

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