To test or not to test

Education, like health care, is one of our most intractable problems.  We spend more and get less than other states and countries, and it’s hard to pinpoint why.  The teachers blame lack of parental support, poverty and other social ills.  Others blame the teachers, especially as represented by their unions, and the tenure system, which they claim concentrate inordinately on protecting bad and ineffective teachers.  At the center of this debate is so-called “high stakes” testing, which teachers claim is being used to punish them for conditions beyond their control and which, they further claim, requires them to “teach to the test” and to take valuable time from higher-level pedagogy. Those favoring testing believe it can be used to establish before and after scores that can measure a teacher’s “value added” effectiveness and therefore can differentiate between more and less effective teachers.

I hope we all can agree that public school teachers in general deserve our respect.  They do not get to choose their students who, especially in high needs districts, can present challenges to keeping order and conveying information that most of us would not know how to deal with effectively.  Most are dedicated, and spend time beyond the contractually mandated minimum and money from their own pockets buying supplies they feel are needed but the school district doesn’t.  As in any profession or occupation, there is a small number of bad actors, and it is on those that most of the controversy centers.  But all teachers, and particularly those who face the challenge of teaching high needs students, fear that factors beyond their control may be used to jeopardize their job security and otherwise “punish” them.

I come down in support of testing, if done intelligently, and if the results are used correctly.  As one who was a manager for much of my career, I heartily subscribe to the adage “you can’t manage what you don’t measure.”  Testing, if valid, provides some information needed to effectively manage schools and teachers.  It does not provide all the information needed to effectively manage schools and teachers — such as the reasons for the results it reports — but it does provide an objective snapshot of how well a teacher or school is performing based on objective standards.  It is common sense that an average class score in the South Bronx that may be lower than an average class score in Scarsdale does not mean the teacher in the South Bronx is ineffective or that the Scarsdale teacher is a star performer.  But it does show where improvement is needed.  How that improvement is to be achieved, and whether substandard teaching is responsible to any degree for poor test results, must be determined by more nuanced, subjective measures.  Having test scores represent half a teacher’s evaluation score recognizes its role and importance, and seems to me reasonable.

A Daily News column by Erroll Louis raises two very good additional points about testing.  One is that the interests of parents and teachers on this issue are not completely the same.  Some parents resent the time spent “teaching to the test” and to  administering the tests, which they may feel could better be spent on other educational activities. Though the teachers agree, the difference between the concerns of parents and teachers is that the “high stakes” of test scores are used only to evaluate teachers.  Students’ test scores do not impact their grades, though perhaps a test score indicating a lack of basic understanding of reading or math should trump a passing grade in those subjects.  The other point Louis raises is that testing, like it or not, is a fact of life in this society, and performing satisfactorily on tests is necessary for admission to institutions of higher learning and many trades and professions.  In other words, teaching to the test may impart a practical life skill.

While I am sympathetic to a limited point with teachers who feel bad test scores will be used unfairly against them, that sympathy is tempered by two factors:  first, no occupation has stronger legal and contractual job protection, union representation or political clout.  Second, it seems pretty clear to me that teachers do not have a better answer for improving schools.  In a state that spends 70% above the national per-pupil average, throwing more money at the problem cannot be the answer, especially in a labor intensive enterprise like teaching, where most additional resources will go to increasing teacher compensation or administrative overhead.  $20,000 per child should be more than enough to provide a clean, safe school environment, necessary supplies and equipment and reasonable class size.  If it isn’t, administrators are not doing their jobs.  Blaming conditions outside the schools for poor student performance, if taken to its logical extreme, is really an argument that providing public education, at least in high-needs areas, is an exercise in futility.   Since teachers cannot make a meaningful difference, why bother at all?

I am not an expert on education, but I think it’s hard to argue with success, as demonstrated by the better, more successful charter schools. What they do is not magic.  A lot of it boils down to time on task, meaning more school days per year and more hours per school day.  I was shocked to read that the most recent New York City teachers’ contract actually decreased classroom time (in exchange for an increase in parent-teacher contact time).  I also understand that the mere fact that charters are populated by students whose parents entered lotteries is a form of pre-selection that indicates better home support for those students, but I’m not sure how much of the performance difference between the better charters and public schools can be accounted for by that difference, and studies suggest that such factors are not statistically significant.  No question, improving out-of-school social services can improve students’ academic performance, as programs like the Harlem Children’s Zone have demonstrated.  But the public schools can and should do better, even though some face difficult challenges. Using valid tests in an intelligent way to establish a baseline from which progress can be measured with reasonable accuracy is a necessary first step toward that goal.

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