Sunday, January 17, 2010

CORE launches a Testing Task Force

I joined some 400 other people on January 9 at the Caucus of Rank and File Educators (CORE) Educational Summit. Currents and events at CPS seem to be building to a head. Between the funding crisis, Huberman's performance management mania, hit lists and turnarounds and closings, and, well, the general social crisis that comes through the front door of the school every day, some sort of resistance has to, needs to develop. The Chicago Teachers Union is an obvious organized force to address what's going on, but as far as I can tell, it is a no show. One of CORE's main principles is a member-driven union which I think at this point is sorely needed. (CORE announced a slate for the upcoming CTU elections.)

Since "teacher evaluation" is the big stick to beat teachers with right now, and the big end of that stick is standardized multiple-choice tests, I was especially interested in CORE's new Testing Task Force: "CORE is launching a testing task force to look into how the misuse of standardized tests interferes with making schools that serve the best interests of our students."

The announcement flyer continues: "Our first task will be to encourage teachers that they are not alone in their feeling that tests are terrorizing students, parents, teachers and entire schools. The current testing regime replaces the joy of learning with the bureaucracy of learning."

As I have written in some earlier posts, CPS teachers are working on two testing fronts. ISAT remains the main measure of Adequate Yearly Progress mandated by No Child Left Behind. ISAT is still the main "high stakes" event for the student (it affects their promotion) and for the school (it affects probation, etc.). The second front is the new Scantron Performance Series, which will be administered three times a year, is done online, and provides immediate scores. It is being phased in this year and will replace the Benchmark Assessment in 2010-11. It is a "computer adaptive" test, which means that questions will increase or decrease in complexity until the software determines a score for the student. The test is standards-based, and will provide a number of metrics, including a scaled score, approximate grade-level performance, a normed national percentile ranking and a Lexile score.

I believe the Scantron test will become the main tool for assessing teachers. CPS will expect a student's score to increase throughout the year. And depending on what statistical voodoo the district uses, the amount of expected increase may vary from school to school. A student's score could increase absolutely, but if the increase does not meet CPS expectations, the teacher has not added enough "value" to the student, and so has failed. Since classroom teachers are being targeted as the sole agent responsible for student advance, the scores will be reflected back on the classroom teacher.

Describing the standardized testing regime as a form of terrorism is on the mark I think, given the pressure put on teachers who are presented with the spectre of turnaround, closure and unemployment. Teachers are not being motivated, they are just being demoralized.

From the CORE workshop on January 9, I heard two messages coming from panelists about testing. One message says that high stakes multiple choice tests are okay, but the opacity around them makes them suspect. And so the pushback is to make it possible to see the tests and challenge the kinds of questions on them and the scoring methodology -- i.e., to make "better" tests.

A second message challenges the whole premise of standardized testing -- that they are, in fact, designed to "sort and track," as one panelist put it. They are very limited assessment tools. This is of course a much more radical position.

As teachers we recognize the importance of student assessment. But it needs to be responsible and effective assessment that matches the student. Multiple choice tests can have a useful role, under specific circumstances, but for many reasons, right now the standardized testing regime is an education disaster.

In a major speech to the National Press Club last week, Randi Weingarten, the president of the American Federation of Teachers, outlined her "New Path Forward for Public Education." In the speech, Weingarten opened the door to significant changes in teacher evaluation, including assessing the "student performance" of their charges. The evaluation of teachers is a valid expectation (but keep the term "accountability" out of it! Reject the intrusion of market-speak into the sphere of teaching!). But teaching takes place within a complex matrix of factors. The teacher is not a lone actor. To her credit, Weingarten added that her "new path forward calls on principals, administrators and elected officials to ensure that teachers get the tools, time and trust they need to do their jobs."

BUT BUT BUT. Without a strong, effective organization (read "union"), that second part will not happen. Teachers will be expected to perform miracles because they do not have the "tools, time and trust". "Tools, time and trust" are the preconditions for successful teaching. This second part of her message will be lost, and all the dogs will hear is "the union says it is okay to evaluate teachers on test scores." The particularities of a given school and community will be disappeared. And teachers, especially the experienced ones at the top of the pay grade, will be hung out to dry.


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