Monday, November 25, 2013

Sometimes the question is wrong

The first year that I was teaching (in my own classroom, full time), early in the year I gave a test that nearly every kid in the class failed.
Reeling from paper after paper that had most answers wrong, I took the stack of papers to my mentor teacher (who'd been teaching for thirty years) and I asked her what I should do.
"Tracy, did they know the material?" she asked.
"Well, I thought so," I told her. "They had it when we went through it in class."
"Then maybe it's the test."

ah....maybe it's the test.

This came to mind these past weeks over two public tiffs that some of our educational leaders are having with some of the people they are supposed to be serving. 

First, Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, speaking to state superintendents, commented:
...he found it "fascinating" that opponents include "white suburban moms who -- all of a sudden -- (discovered that) their child isn't as bright as they thought they were, and their school isn't quite as good as they thought they were."
 You can read more on this here, and Teacher Sabrina has the best response I've read:
Think about that. Rather than listening to what parents want for their children, or considering what the evidence says kids do or don’t need, they’ve decided that they want to pursue a certain course no matter what. And rather than ask themselves whether the backlash they’ve encountered is an indication that they should rethink their position, they have decided to artificially raise the bar for proficiency and hope the score drop changes people’s minds. (That this will require people to doubt the evidence of their own eyes, as well as other tests and indicators they’ve been told to believe in for years, doesn’t seem to trouble them at all.)
...which brings me to the tiff closer to home, where Commissioner Chester commented to the Boston Globe:
  What worries Chester most, however, is that he is starting to hear counterproductive grumbling from school superintendents. They are telling him that requirements to implement new teacher evaluations and incorporate the new Common Core standards are “too much, too soon.”
This brought in this letter from a principal in Acton, as well as this blog post from the superintendent of Hopkinton:
Perhaps, instead, it is time for the Commonwealth to begin to question if the Emperor is wearing any clothes, and if the policies of data-worship and accountability are just another doomed quick fix that will soon be relegated to the scrap heap of history, joining other failed educational policies such as New Math and open classrooms.  While I do welcome many aspects of Massachusetts’ new educator evaluation system including its increased emphasis on accountability, Massachusetts has embraced these notions as the solution to all our ills and has ignored the real issues that contribute to our performance gap –including poverty, hunger, school readiness, and the burdensome weight of hopelessness that these children feel when entering our classrooms.  Holding a teacher from Lawrence individually accountable for their student’s achievement is like holding the little Dutch boy accountable for the flood after the dyke failed.
...which brings me back to my test that first year teaching. As it happens, I was right--my students did know the material, as I had found from class discussion and more informal assessment. When I went back to the test I'd given them, I found that the way I had put the questions had thrown nearly all of them off. 

It wasn't the students: it was the question.*

When we find that the federal Secretary of Education is blaming parents for not knowing their kids and not knowing their neighborhood schools; when the state Commissioner of Education is blaming superintendents for whining about doing their jobs; when, in short, the blame is falling just about anywhere but in the highest reaches of what is supposed to be an accountability system, it's time--past time, I'd say--to start questioning the basis of the system. 
What are we basing our judgments on: what we know of our schools? what we know of our classrooms?
Or of baseless systems of curriculum and assessment pushed for political ends?

Sometimes the question is wrong.

*for those of you wondering: I threw out the test, after talking it over with my students. We cleared up how I'd confused them in the assessment, and they showed me what they really knew and could do in the next one. And I knew better next time.

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