Current Affairs

ethics, professionalism, and standardized testing

As reported in the NY Times, there seems to be a "slight" error in the standardized testing measures in which it first appeared that 86% of students were at "grade level" in math, when in fact only 61% were. In the article, Merryl H. Tisch, the chancellor of the state’s Education Department, is quoted as saying “Now that we are facing the hard truth that not all of the gains were as advertised, we have to take a look at what we can do differently. These results will finally provide real unimpeachable evidence about to be used for accountability.”

But I especially like this paragraph:

New York City officials said that if the passing rates since 2006 were adjusted to match the new scoring standards, the city had shown substantial progress over all. But that explanation is likely to offer little consolation to teachers and parents who must now face the reality that just more than half of city students in the third through eighth grades are proficient in math, not four out of every five, as they were led to believe last year.

To which I believe the only suitable response is to say, "But these go to 11."

Of course the entire system of assessment here is comically arbitrary. First you establish some fantastical notion of what qualifies as math or ELA knowledge that says first you must learn X and then Y and that you must learn them by a certain point in time. Second, you make up some test that purports to evaluate whether or not students have learned this knowledge in the way you have insisted that they should. Third you drink the assessment kool-aid so that you can believe the results of some test can tell you the Truth about what students actually know.

Testing does not and cannot improve education. It cannot even give you a real sense of the classroom. I love Tisch's unrepentant delusion where, even when faced with the gross imprecision of testing, she continues to have faith in future assessments. Why would any sane person believe that future results would be any less impeachable than last year's?

The fundamental problem is that we do not trust teachers' professional ethics. This begins with imposing standardized curriculum (where we don't trust them to create their own) and extends through the reward system attached to high-stakes testing. But this is completely wrong-headed. Certainly, younger, less-experienced teachers need to be mentored and guided, but at some point we either have to trust these people to educate our kids or stop sending them into the classroom.

Of course there are problems with the way that we structure these jobs. If teachers are professionals (which of course they must be), they need to be involved in discussions and research regarding teaching methods as well as the subject matter they teach. They need to be part of a community which affords the professional courtesy of making one's own decisions but also ultimately holds one ethically accountable to research, best practices, and so on. And those things do exist, but they need to be a more integral part of every teachers' work. Then there is also the pay issue. As I've discussed in past posts about motivation and creative jobs, the first thing you need is fair pay. Once you have fair pay then you don't need to incentivize work with more pay. In fact, more money can dis-incentivize. This is perhaps what happens when we tie test results to more money.

Really though I think there are deeper questions about why we mistrust educational institutions. And perhaps even more perplexing to me why we trust testing and government instead.

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