Speedometers Don’t Improve Performance

The California legislature recently passed a bill that would establish a new system for evaluating schools in that state, one in which student test scores were weighted less heavily and added other measures to the mix.

The governor vetoed the bill, but for many of the right reasons.

Finally, while SB547 attempts to improve the API [Academic Performance Index], it relies on the same quantitative and standardized paradigm at the heart of the current system. The criticism of the API is that it has led schools to focus too narrowly on tested subjects and ignore other subjects and matters that are vital to a well-rounded education. SB547 certainly would add more things to measure, but it is doubtful that it would actually improve our schools. Adding more speedometers to a broken car won’t turn it into a high-performance machine. [My emphasis]

I love that analogy! But I digress and he continues.

SB547 nowhere mentions good character or love of learning. It does allude to student excitement and creativity, but does not take these qualities seriously because they can’t be placed in a data stream. Lost in the bill’s turgid mandates is any recognition that quality is fundamentally different from quantity. [His emphasis]

Of course, California is not the only state where an overemphasis on testing a very few basic skills has narrowed the curriculum and produced an extremely skewed picture of student learning and school quality.

At least they have a governor who is willing to challenge the idea that standardized tests are the only, or even the best, measure of educational quality. Can we get someone like that in Virginia?

Some of the Best Teaching Isn’t On The Test

The topic in today’s New York Times Room For Debate page is how do you assess the value of a teacher?

The section, which is hardly a debate, more a collection of short guest editorials on a particular issue, asks the writers to comment on the “value-add” system of evaluating teachers that is being tried in DC schools and was used by the LA Times in their recent series on the quality of teachers in the city schools.

According to the Times, “value add” is a system that “calculates the value teachers add to their students’ achievement, based on changes in test scores from year to year and how the students perform compared with others in their grade.”

As you might expect the editors managed to round up a “fair and balanced” group from a variety of think tanks and universities.

One of the writers, however, is actually a K12 educator, a math teacher at the middle school that feeds to the high school in which I taught, and someone whose teaching skills I saw in some of the kids in my classes.

He gives a qualified endorsement of the concept (“If value-added analysis is to be used, it should be fully validated and other data should also be included when evaluating and labeling a teacher.”), but it’s this observation that is more to the heart of the issue of assessing both students and teachers.

Some of my best teaching occurs (and my students learn the most) when I present material that will never appear on any summative assessment. For gifted students especially, it is imperative to present to them mathematics that is both challenging and interesting. At times this may include assigning complex problems that may take days instead of minutes to solve. Never will such problems appear on state or national tests that are used to determine a teacher’s added value.

I would take out the part about gifted students and say that all kids deserve to be presented with challenging and interesting material, not just in math but in all their learning experiences.

The skills gained by learning to solve those complex problems that take days to resolve (or maybe are never completely resolved?) will be far more valuable in their lives than anything we ask students to memorize (often temporarily) for the next standardized test.