Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Standardized Testing: The Fallacy of Teacher Accountabililty

On this blog, I posted recently about the continuing decline in SAT scores since 2002, at a time when the greatest names in American education reform are promising, cross-their-hearts-and-hope-to-die, that if only we only follow their lead we are going to witness a resurrection in our schools, we are going to see standards raised, by god, and if we don't a few thousand "failing" teachers are going to have to be thrown to the lions by way of warning to all the rest.

I'm a retired teacher.  So I know better than most that good teachers make a difference.  Unlike most leading reformers, however, I actually taught real students, and taught for a long time, and know STUDENTS also determine how they do on any test, standardized or otherwise.

In any case, one former star student responded to my last post, wondering how a slight decline in SAT scores could possibly be significant.

If the general public would look deeply into these matters, the general public would realize that--really--a slight decline is NOT important.  The general public might also realize that rating school and teacher performance based solely on student test scores is a form of insanity.  The general public might easily grasp this reality, but the general public is too busy watching Jersey Shore, ten permutations of CSI and The Real Housewives of New York and so their focus is rarely on education. (Coming soon?  The Real Housewives of Wapakoneta, Ohio.)

SAT scores--rising or falling--are generally a false measure of how schools in this country are doing.  In fact, most of the recent drop can be attributed to a steady rise in test-takers from minority populations, who historically score lower.  And the fact that more minority students are aiming for college is actually a positive trend.

Still, critics of the public schools love to cite such declines as proof of teacher failure and this has been true since at least the 70's, even before I began my career in a seventh grade classroom.

What our leading reformers and education experts (and the reporters who quote them) routinely miss is the fact that STUDENTS also determine how they score on SAT's, on their weekly quizzes in Algebra I or their unit tests on the American Civil War, and the same is true of the standardized tests now so in vogue.

Without intending, an editorial in the New York Times today makes this very point. Talking about the need for better security to insure accurate results on the New York State Regents Test, the Times notes the accelerating push "to make schools accountable for student performance."  The editorial continues:  "In coming years, teachers will also be judged, in part, on how much their students improve on state tests."

As always, the focus is on how TEACHERS perform. 

Until we place a much larger part of the responsibility on students all our talk of "raising standards" is just moving our lips.

If a child misses 22 days of school in an average year (the norm in the Washington, D. C. schools) and ends up two years behind, academically by his or her senior year, maybe we should blame parents, not teachers, for low SAT scores.  Or maybe we should blame America's health care system?  If a kid in the Chicago schools misses 26 days (also the norm) maybe we should hold the kid responsible for slacking off, not fault the teacher who only marks the questions they missed on their eighth grade math final wrong.

Michelle Rhee (who ran the D. C. schools) and  Arne Duncan (who ran the Chicago system) both focus on teachers as the only important variable when they preach about "raising standards" and tell us they know just how to do it.

If only they had taught a little longer (Rhee and Duncan spent three years in the classroom each), they and other reformers (many of whom have never taught a single day) might be a little more realistic.  I'm not going to be modest.  I was a very good teacher in my time and most of my former students would probably tell you that was true.

I certainly realized that if I worked hard I could do a better job;  but I also knew that if my students wanted to be a success, in my history class, or later in life, THEY would have suck it up and bust some serious ass.  I knew they had to work harder, themselves, or nothing I said or did would matter much in the end.

This sole focus on what teachers do--measuring their efforts by how student do on tests--that approach to "raising standards" cannot possibly work.

It can't work.

It can't.

Until we face up to that fact, all efforts at education reform are doomed to failure.

***WAPAKONETA corrected at reader request.


  1. Wapakoneta...spelled with an "a"
    Home of Neil Armstrong!

  2. My hometown, so I had to correct. :)
    Great blog post! I can't do the thinking for my students, no matter how much Kasich wants to believe.