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As We Assess, So Shall We Teach: Extra Pay for Merit or Malpractice?

By Anthony Cody — March 16, 2009 4 min read
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One of the reasons I was excited about the election of Barack Obama was the chance it offered us to turn our energies in education in a positive direction.

His campaign website stated:

Obama and Biden believe teachers should not be forced to spend the academic year preparing students to fill in bubbles on standardized tests and he will improve the assessments used to track student progress to measure readiness for college.

There are disturbing signs, however, that under the leadership of Education Secretary Arne Duncan we may not have escaped the tyranny of the tests.

In his recent speech on education policy, Obama again spoke about merit pay, the idea that we should identify the best teachers and “reward them for their greatness.”

Arne Duncan later explained, saying “What you want to do is really identify the best and brightest by a range of metrics, including student achievement.”

I have been researching and debating the idea of paying teachers more for improved performance for several years, and the sticking point is always the same. We do not have a clear, reliable method for assessing the contribution of an individual teacher to student learning. What is more, the primary means in place for assessing student learning are narrow and likewise inadequate. The whole emphasis of No Child Left Behind was to pressure schools and teachers to increase test scores – and it yielded the result decried by Obama and Biden during the campaign.

Test-driven reforms have lost legitimacy in the hearts and minds of America’s teachers and parents. Candidates Obama and Clinton found the mention of ending NCLB to be one of their most popular lines in their stump speeches. The public knows that schools have cut recess, kindergartens have eliminate time for play, and elementary schools have cut art, music, history and science, in order to focus instructional time on tested subjects – English and Math. They know teachers have become demoralized by the relentless pressure to boost scores. We are ready for a change.

I have heard Obama and Duncan speak of improved assessments, but until those assessments are shared and demonstrated to be of high quality, I am deeply skeptical, because it is so much easier and cheaper to use the assessments in place than to develop the capacity to assess student learning more deeply. Indeed, there are reports of a tremendous investment about to occur in improved data systems, all of which rely on the same old low-quality standardized test scores.

That does not mean it is impossible to measure student learning. The big question is can we build a system that is legitimate, and that actually expands student learning rather than narrows it. What would such a system look like?

Assessment should be tied to classroom instruction. Paul Black and Dylan Wiliam authored a seminal piece of work entitled Inside the Black Box, about a decade ago about the critical role formative assessment can play in guiding and promoting student growth. It can serve as timely feedback to both the teacher and the learner. For this reason, a solid assessment system would not only measure student performance once in the Spring, but numerous times during the school year. Teachers should play a central role in designing these assessments, so they are rich enough to encompass their instruction.

Assessment should allow students to express their understanding in more than one dimension. Most standardized tests are multiple choice and short answer, limiting the depth of knowledge that can be assessed. Students should be able to express their understanding in a variety of ways, and the use of portfolios scored with clear rubrics would allow this to measure richer expressions of learning. These portfolios can be shared with the public through open forums, at parent/teacher/student conferences, and at school-wide expositions.

Standards must be limited to critical big ideas in order allow instruction to achieve depth. Education reform policy has been driven by fear of foreign competition for far too long. There are those who believe that the tougher we make school, the better. So we shove math standards down earlier and earlier, so that 6th, 7th and 8th grade math teachers end up wasting months of instructional time re-teaching concepts that were introduced too early, and never mastered. And we have Algebra for all 8th graders mandated with little input from educators or regard for actual conditions in our schools. California’s science curriculum is likewise overly prescriptive and fact-driven. I think our students would be much better served by a more deliberate, in-depth curriculum than the current race to cram as many concepts in a semester as possible. Classroom teachers must be integrally involved in the creation of these standards.

Much of Obama’s agenda for education is positive. It is a relief to see that real resources will be flowing to early childhood education, and that there is a recognition of the value of excellent teachers. But we have fought the phony equivalence of test scores and student learning for too long to allow it to continue to distort our schools and harm our students. Yes, we want accountability for student learning. Yes, we want authentic assessments. Yes, we want rewards for excellent teachers.

But if those rewards are based on the same standardized tests that candidate Obama decried, what behavior will they promote? More emphasis on test preparation, and less time for art, science, music and history. Test preparation is educational malpractice -- it is bad for our students. We must not reward malpractice. To truly improve learning, rewards should be based on legitimate measurements, not the discredited tests that sunk No Child Left Behind.

As we assess, so shall we teach.

What do you think? How can we identify and reward excellent teachers? How can we best measure student achievement?

The opinions expressed in Living in Dialogue are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.

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