Wednesday, December 7, 2011

If we don't like state assessments, how do we measure success?

A recent article in the Washington Post highlighted an adult, a school board member no less, who took the FCAT - Florida's state mandated assessment test. He didn't do well. The article raises once again the question of whether these state mandated assessments are the best way to measure student learning.

This fall, principals in New York have risen up to protest the use of standardized assessments in teacher evaluations. Research, and common sense, supports their view that using a tool designed to do one thing to do something else can be done but it may not be the best or wisest thing to do. I have used a stapler as a hammer before. It worked but it certainly was not the most efficient or effective way to hammer the nail.  State assessments are designed to measure student learning. We are now trying to use them to measure teacher effectiveness and student growth. It probably can be done but is it the best way to accomplish these important tasks.

A third point must also be made. There is money to be made in education - especially in the use of assessments. Pearson, a British company that bills itself as a leader in learning, recently reported that they had sales of approximately $4 billion US dollars and a profit of approximately $732 million dollars (stated in British pounds it looks this way -£2.6bn and operating profit of £469m). Selling tests to school systems is big business. One has to wonder if the push to test every student at every opportunity has more to do with corporate profit than it does with student learning.

Having said all of this, what is my point? I believe that schools have a responsibility to teach students. In saying that it means that we have to be able to show in real ways that students ARE learning. Schools also have a responsibility to measure whether administrators and teachers are being effective. \Administrator and teacher effectiveness has to include a connection to student learning. After all, that is why schools are in business. We cannot say that a teacher is effective if we cannot demonstrate that the students in that teacher's classroom are learning.

If educators, those who have invested their lives in schools and student learning, do not like standardized state assessments and do not believe that these are accurate measures of the learning that is occurring in classrooms, then we have to come up with an alternative. I would argue that the alternative cannot only be idiosyncratic, classroom-specific, teacher created assessments. These can certainly be included but there has to be a way to measure student learning with an external measurement if we are going to convince our parents and community members that students are learning.

Schools exist to help students learn. Administrators and teachers must be able to demonstrate that students are learning in their classroom. Railing against standardized assessments and state mandated tests may feel good but it does not accomplish a lot. I think we should spend more time working to create a system that will help us measure student learning, evaluate the effectiveness of administrators and teachers, and stand up to external critics who question whether students are learning, than we should arguing against the use of standardized tests.

Students come to our schools everyday to learn. We have to have a good, effective way to measure that.

Parents want to know if the teachers who are teaching their children are effective. We have to have a way to measure that.

Taxpayers, politicians, and community members want to know if schools are being effective. We have to have a way to measure that.

If we don't like standardized state assessments, how will we measure success?