Assessment

Test Students to Enrich High School Teaching, Brief Urges

By Bess Keller — March 26, 2008 3 min read
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More effective teaching in high schools will get its biggest boost from a variety of high-quality assessments of student learning, according to a policy brief from a group that advocates for students in danger of dropping out or graduating with low skills.

The trove of student-assessment data that has begun to focus the quest for more effective teaching in the elementary and middle grades often doesn’t exist in high schools, the paper says, nor do high schools typically have the schedules and routines that allow teachers to learn from the data and one another. But such challenges must be overcome to significantly improve students’ chances of graduating from high school prepared for further education and for life, says the Washington-based Alliance for Excellent Education, which released the brief at a panel discussion held here this week.

That’s because teaching, which should be defined primarily by the measurable contributions that teachers make to student learning, is the most important school factor in student success, said alliance policy associate Jeremy Ayers, who presented the paper underwritten by the MetLife Foundation.

While state tests provide one way of measuring student-learning gains, high schools need to turn to other yardsticks, such as end-of-course tests and school-devised assessments, Mr.Ayers said.

Proponents of the “value added” statistical method, which uses test scores, usually over three years, to isolate a teacher’s effect on student learning, say it is the fairest available method for gauging effectiveness, though it is more complicated to carry out at the high school level because of the overlapping contributions of teachers, the paper says.

“With value-added, we have the best ability right now to get the best information on teachers,” Mr. Ayers said, while acknowledging the method’s limitations, some statistical and some related to the availability of sound assessments.

‘Glaring Weakness’

Some observers, though, find the reliance on standardized test results wrongheaded.

Susan Ohanian, a senior fellow at the Vermont Society for the Study of Education and a former high school teacher, said in an e-mail that the value-added system misses the point of teaching.Teachers must “take the needs of students into account,” she wrote. “Students and teachers [need to negotiate] curriculum together.”

Segun C. Eubanks, the director of teacher quality for the National Education Association, had different concerns. He said that while standardized and other test results could provide valuable information about how a school is performing and ways to improve professional development for teachers, the value-added approach was not yet very useful for identifying effective teachers.

“One glaring weakness of value-added is it has no way of measuring what teachers do and don’t do [in the classroom] to make them effective,” he said. “Nor have we been able to even scratch the surface about how to apply value-added to a high school environment with multiple subjects and a wide array of teachers.

“More work is needed before value-added is used in making sweeping policy decisions,” he concluded.

The alliance brief advises schools to supplement the information gleaned from standardized tests with information from other forms of assessment, such as periodic classroom tests or standardized portfolios of student work.

Steeped in Data

The paper says, too, that a definition of teacher effectiveness can also take into account the knowledge and skills that teachers bring to their work, as long as the qualities are measurable and closely linked to student achievement. Examples include grasp of content, ability to work with teenagers of different backgrounds, and skill at motivating students.

Once the most effective teachers are identified, they can help other teachers improve, the paper says, if the school’s faculty routinely collaborates on the use of student data. Such a setup for working together around student results is far from a given, however.

“In my school, it took leadership saying, ‘Give teachers time for planning and collaborating,’ ” recalled Tommy Smigiel, a teacher at Norview High School in Norfolk, Va., who took part in the panel discussion on the brief. “And it does cost money.”

The paper also recommends using observations of teachers’ classroom performance to improve effectiveness and form part of the structure for career ladders.

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