How we let scores define us…and perpetuate self-deprecation

Some members of our district and union membership recently sent the following letter as a press release to local papers:

We understand the world of numbers, and we rely on them for everything from the amount of gas left in our gas tanks to the amount of money in our bank accounts.

But numbers are not always reliable, particularly in the case of education. Children are complex, constantly changing. On good days, when they’re happy, healthy, and feeling successful, they can reach amazing goals. They can climb all the way up the rope in gym, ace their chemistry final, or finish their homework without argument. But the opposite is true on bad days: give them an argument with a friend, a forgotten homework assignment, or insecurity about new clothes, and everything is negatively impacted.

Give them a test on a good day, and they’ll do well; give them the same test on a bad day, and they’ll do poorly. It’s the nature of children, and it’s the reason why no classroom teacher bases major decisions about a child on his performance any single day.

It is also why policy makers should never make major decisions about teacher effectiveness based on a child’s performance on a single day.

Under current law, this is exactly what will happen. Half of most teachers’ evaluations will be based on how their students perform on a single test on a single day–numbers that don’t adequately represent the whole child. House Bill 59 tries to lessen the impact of this unreliable data from 50% to 35%, and while the reliance on data from a single snapshot in time is still not perfect, it is better than current legislation.

Measuring teacher effectiveness should mirror how we measure student growth: using multiple measures, in many different forms, at many different times over the course of time.”

Having been a part of the writing process with this letter, I still cannot stop thinking about the effects of standardized testing and value added scores on teachers and schools.

Many districts across the state are beginning to receive their OAA and OGT scores from last year and are anxiously awaiting those designations: “Excellent with Distinction,” Excellent…. We proudly post banners of these designations around our districts proclaiming our status to the community and beyond.

There is nothing wrong with this practice. Districts should be proud of their accomplishments.

My question, though, is why do we let THESE designations on these snapshot tests define our districts and buildings? As I learn more, I become increasingly cynical about what raised scores actually mean. Does a 99% passage rate signify really excellent instruction that is teaching critical thinking, using problem-based learning and authentic tasks to connect kids to the world around them, or does it signify OAA/OGT test prep when students are pulled from other learning opportunities (such as art class) to take practice test after practice test and learn “test taking skills” such as omitting multiple choice answers that are clearly wrong? Does an “excellent with distinction” signify a school that is really going above and beyond to do incredible things for kids, get them into and prepared for success in college and careers, and teach them how to be lifelong learners, or does it signify a school who had the means and abilities to throw a dozen pro-testing pep assemblies, provide breakfast the morning of each test, and offer “carrots” for raised scores? I’m sure there are circumstances throughout Ohio and beyond when any and/or all of these scenarios is true.

Somehow, we have led ourselves to a place where that distinction based on scores from that one test are defining us as systems, schools, and individuals. When scores come in, we are inherently reactionary–we look at how we did, pulling and printing file after file from the dozens of statewide portals that provide every level of data, and we do what introspective, reflective people do: we critique. It’s easier for us to see all the things we did wrong rather than all the things we did right. We see drops in scores before we notice raised scores; we see groups that have “lowered” rather than individual students who have exceeded expectations; we see problems; we ask how other schools within the district and comparable schools beyond our district did so we can say things like “well at least we did better than…” (Self-appreciating) and “I can’t believe we did worse than…” (Self-deprecating), inherently creating competition between districts when we should be working together; we place blame on our own people, “well, so and so was a new teacher / taught a new subject / moved to a new grade level,” and worse “this was just a bad group of kids / the kids won’t work / if they could’ve just done their homework”; we decry our “excellent” when we wanted to be “excellent with distinction”; we bury ourselves under defeats.

Year after year, “defeat” after “defeat”, we find the negatives, react to them, drill and kill a little more, include a few more practice tests, feel a little more competitive with other schools and teachers within our own schools, and we all dig in a little more to our educational silos.

There isn’t much good to be had from all of this criticism based on one test, one day, one score.

Back to my original question: why do we let these tests define our systems? Why don’t we fly banners around our districts that say, “We’re awesome because WE say so!” And “Our teachers are raising REAL HUMANS and that can’t be measured by any test!” Or “We are bigger than one day!” Why don’t we? Because we let those tests defeat us–we know the truth behind what is tested and how destructive the tests are, but we, educators, put the same stock into them as misinformed politicians and the general public. We are our own worst enemy.

I’m not saying we shouldn’t look at them at all, but we need MORE than one snapshot. We have to see our successes; we need to look at how our teachers, admins, and all support staff viewed the year–what did they think were the successes and where do they see need for improvement? Our people, those with intimate knowledge of what actually happens in the building and district, know what to appreciate and strengthen better than the test.

I say all of this to get to a single point: teachers are struggling right now. Everything in our educational system is working against them, and they feel unempowered, little autonomy–it’s as if they went to school ALL THOSE YEARS to learn about content, pedagogy, and child development, and no one is listening to them. There is little to be gained in this tumultuous atmosphere by self-deprecation.

Update: Ironically, on the same day I wrote this post, I encountered this in a book I’m reading–an unfortunate side effect of data-driven practices:

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