Thursday, August 2, 2012

Beware of the back-to-school testing success trap

Guest post by - Crossposted at A Teacher's Life for Me

At our first teacher work day today, our Superintendent shared some data from the previous school year.  Most related to difficulties the district is facing due to budget cuts, as most public school districts are these days.  He also shared that according to a recent study by the Scranton Times our district has been identified as having the sixth most economically depressed student population out of the 37 districts in northeastern Pennsylvania based on free and reduced lunch data.  More than 50% of our student population qualifies.

As a way to turn the discussion more positive, he then shared that the same paper has determined that our student achievement was fifth highest in those 37 districts based on scores from last year's state test results.

I have to admit that for a moment after hearing that I allowed myself to fall into the trap of feeling proud and enthusiastic about those scores.  After all, isn't it great to hear that you and your colleagues are doing a good job, especially if it's printed in the local newspaper?

Then I caught myself.

Are we supposed to pat ourselves on the back because 75% of our children could regurgitate facts that could be found on Google in less than 30 seconds?  Should we be proud that some of our students have mastered a math test that measures calculation instead of real math, or a reading test that demands little more than understanding of low-level questions on short passages, ignoring any critical thinking or research that would be needed to solve problems in real life?

Is it fair to celebrate a newspaper broadcasting your success when you would argue the unfairness of printing your failure?

Too often we, as educators, fall into this trap.  I've been guilty of it before.  The culture of standardized testing is not helpful in promoting the skills which are most important for students as they move forth from our classrooms and try and succeed in life.  When we allow ourselves or our students to be defined by test scores, whether the scores are good or bad, we risk losing the argument for replacing those tests with creativity, collaboration, service learning, a focus on empathy, project based learning, critical thinking, and all of the wonderful things on which our schools should be focused.

In a time when teacher morale is suffering, we cannot allow the temptation of feeling good about succeeding on something distract us from what's really important for our students.  Because, if we, as professional educators lose sight of what's important in education, what hope is there of real reform or revolution of the system?

So, thank you Scranton Times for your kind words, but you can keep them.  Come pay me a visit during the school year when my students are really doing great things by using technology to create study guides for students all over the world, running a food drive for the local food pantry, using math and research to create a proposal for an improvement to our town park, or any of the other things we do that matter immensely more than test scores.

Those are the things of which my students and I can be proud.

1 comment:

  1. While I basically agree that celebrating achievement on standardized testing is something that we really shouldn't be doing, I don't think you should chastise yourself or other teachers for doing so, nor should you chastise the local media for printing the scores.

    When my superintendent congratulates my school on making AYP (or whatever we did), I don't smile, but I do breathe a sigh of relief because I know that it will mean less pressure and less scrutiny for this year. That might not mean anything to you, but having worked in schools that have struggled with standardized test scores, it means that we have taken a step forward and can have some breathing room.

    The press is going to report those measurements because they're readily available and easy to report. In this case, it looks good for the school; in many cases, it doesn't and the only purpose that reporting test scores seems to do is stir up the "Where is my tax money going?" ranting and raving.

    What I'd suggest doing is establishing a relationship with the local paper and inviting them to see something in your classroom. If it's something that is a great photo opportunity, it's definitely going to get their attention. Teachers in my school have had the local paper cover science days, arts festivals, and a poetry recital competition, and I am sure that every one of them called the paper to tell them about it.

    Nobody is going to report on anything in a school unless it's something highly negative like a criminal act or massive budget cuts, or if it involves high school football. You have to make your own publicity.