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John Merrow

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A Test Question -- Can You Spell 'Blackmail'?

Posted: 06/ 1/11 10:25 AM ET

If memory serves, years ago a group of students at a California high school deliberately filled in incorrect answers on a test the state used to evaluate its schools, thereby guaranteeing that the school would sink in the rankings. They were upset because the principal failed to bow to their demand for a smoking area or some similar privilege.

Whether the principal was right or wrong is immaterial. What matters is that the state had put him in that position by creating a test whose results meant nothing to those being tested -- but could lead to cash bonuses for schools doing well.

Students at other high schools apparently went to their principals and offered to do really well in return for privileges. Not sure how that turned out.

In 2006, according to California reporter John Fensterwald, students at a charter school in San Jose protested the dismissal of a couple of popular teachers by sabotaging a state test. The school's score on the all-important Academic Progress Index dropped 203 points, from 731 to 528.

What brings that to mind is the news that New York City is going to spend at least $25 million to create tests whose scores will, they hope, allow them to judge teachers (not students).

As Chief Academic Officer Shael Polakow-Suransky said to The New York Times, "How do you create an additional assessment that is actually going to strengthen instructional practice, rather than divert time away from instruction?"

That, he added, "is what we set out to solve."

From my vantage point, there is so much wrong with this thinking as to be laughable -- although maybe Dr. Polakow-Suransky (by all accounts a brilliant man) is being logical given that the legislature passed a law last year that requires districts to find ways to rate teachers on a scale from 'highly effective' to 'ineffective'. The legislature was doing Washington's bidding, to help the state win the Race to the Top competition, so perhaps the madness starts in the Congress and the White House.

But madness it is, because New York City will be piling more tests on top of those already being administered. The Times reports that, if the plan is carried out, high school students could end up taking as many as eight additional tests a year, because, after all, not everyone teaches math or language arts. As spokeswoman Natalie Ravitz said in an email, "Some of the things that need to be determined are how are we going to 'test' students in art classes... students in Physical education... students in Spanish."

There will be more tests for elementary and middle school students as well.

Now about the blackmail: When New York City rolls out the test exams next year in 100 or so schools, how long before some savvy students let teachers know that they know what's going on -- and are willing to try their best if the teacher will agree to (fill in your own answer here).

Reporters have to be salivating at the prospect of some really juicy stories emerging from this idiotic policy. If it weren't so stupid, I would be really pumped too.

According to the Times article, sample tests were given in 11 schools this spring, but no one told the students what the deal was. Good luck with keeping that a secret as the tests spread to other schools.

And in fact, Dr. Polakow-Suransky urged full disclosure. "I don't think it should be a secret that part of how teachers are evaluated is how kids' learning goes on in their class," he said.

(Perhaps I should say 'if the tests spread,' because spokeswoman Ravitz says they have only put out the RFP but "haven't made decisions.")

Doesn't anybody have the courage to challenge this slavish devotion to standardized testing (mostly bubble tests, by the way)? Students in New York City finished taking their 'end of the year' state test in mid-May, but school itself doesn't get out until the end of June. For kids (and for the policy types in their comfortable offices), the tests are everything. Teachers, of course, have to hold their students' interest for another six weeks or so.

Dr. Polakow-Suransky said the challenge was to create an additional assessment that will 'strengthen instruction.'

I say he ought to examine the premise of the law and challenge it, because the goal ought to be to strengthen teaching and learning. This entire exercise strikes me as a 'gotcha game' whose outcome will undermine the teaching profession, increase disrespect among students for schooling, and take time away from teaching and learning. It will, however, allow students to strengthen their bargaining and blackmailing skills.

Assessments can strengthen instruction, of course. Frequent school-based tests in math, for example, can pinpoint which teachers are having difficulty getting certain concepts across; they can then learn different approaches from their more successful peers. That's not 'gotcha' testing but sensible assessment with an immediate feedback loop.

I speak about many of these issues in my book, The Influence of Teachers. A lot of our problems in public education stem from a dearth of respect. We don't respect students' intelligence; hence we focus on the lowest common denominator in skills. We don't respect teachers, which is why we turn to standardized testing as the be-all and end-all of evaluation. I'm not sure we even respect learning itself.

Nor do we expect very much from our kids, frankly. Imagine setting the bar for reading at third grade, when most first graders are fully capable of learning to read and learning to enjoy reading?

But enough of this rant. The questions are:

How do we raise expectations?

How do we get beyond the insult of 'the basics'?

How do we wean ourselves away from our addiction to more and more standardized testing?

The floor is open for suggestions (I've done the ranting).

John Merrow's book, The Influence of Teachers, is available for sale at Amazon. He'll also be appearing with Teach for America founder and CEO Wendy Kopp on June 13 in New York City, for an evening dialogue entitled "The Future of Teaching." You can buy tickets here.

 

Follow John Merrow on Twitter: www.twitter.com/john_merrow