If You Want to Improve Student Test Scores, Empower Teachers and Get Out of the Way

If You Want to Improve Student Test Scores, Empower Teachers and Get Out of the Way

Imagine, if you will, this scenario: You are an oncologist. It is your job to try to save the lives of patients stricken with cancer. You have a large case load of patients. Some of them come to you in the very early stages of a routine, slow growing malignancy. With a simple, low-risk surgery, and some minor follow up treatment most if not all of these patients will make a swift and full recovery, able to return to their normal lives in very short order. Some of your patients will come to you with a more aggressive and complex form of cancer. These patients will probably require you to think outside the box. They may require risky and extensive surgery, or perhaps multiple surgeries and an aggressive round of radiation and chemotherapy. With these patients, you feel like there is a 50/50 chance that you might be able to have success. Perhaps you can add many years to their lives. Perhaps, if all goes well, you can help them reach full remission. With these patients, there is much hope, but the forecast is cloudy at best. And then, some of your patients will come to you in the desperation of Stage 4 cancer–metastasized, rapidly growing, all but hopeless. Your hands are pretty well tied. There is absolutely nothing you can do with surgery. You can prescribe aggressive alternative treatments, but you see almost no hope for recovery. At best, you can do all you can to add a few weeks or months to their lives, manage their pain, and pray for a miracle far beyond the realm of medical science. Now imagine that, as an oncologist, you are given a yearly letter grade based upon the overall survival rate of all of the patients that come under your care. You work in a public hospital, so you can’t pick and choose your patients, you must take all comers. Your rate of pay is determined by your rating, so your livelihood is based upon the luck of the draw as to how many of patients you get in those different categories I just described. If you happen to get a lot of the easy cases from the first category, your grade will probably look pretty good and you’ll be well compensated. If you happen to have a heavy load of Stage 4 patients, well, good luck to you. 

Friends, this scenario is a reality for public school teachers and it’s a big part of the reason you’re starting to hear a lot of talk about the Red for Ed movement. It’s why dozens of school corporations around the state of Indiana have canceled classes for November 19th. And it’s why downtown Indianapolis will be a sea of red on that day. This is the problem created by the high stakes standardized testing fiasco. This is the reason behind the desperately critical, and daily worsening teacher shortage. And this is the reason why something has to give and now.

The real crime of all of this is that it could be such an easy fix. If you want to improve standardized test scores, you simply need to empower (and trust) teachers and get out of their way. Allow me to explain what I mean. States spend an exorbitant amount of money (think in the $50-100+ million range annually) paying giant corporations to create and conduct standardized tests. Let me say, right up front, this is a completely counterproductive practice and it’s totally unnecessary. When I say it’s counterproductive, I’m actually severely understating it. It’s actually the biggest part of the problem–you could actually say it IS the problem. Consider this: States pay these companies to develop these tests as independent agents. The content of these tests is a secret guarded as tightly as the nuclear codes. So, put yourself in the shoes of a teacher here for just a moment. At the beginning of the school year, you have dozens of content standards as well as literacy standards to cover. There are 180 of class. Take away anywhere from 10 to 20 of those days for various other kinds of tests, field trips, etc. Now you are looking at, if you’re lucky, 140 to 160 hours of class time to cover those dozens of standards. You know that you are under the gun to get your students to perform well on the big standardized test at the end of the year (you know, that test, the content of which is kept a complete mystery to you and your students). You realize that most of those dozens of standards you are required to teach won’t even be touched on that end-all-be-all test (you know, that test by which you’re professional competency will be judged and by which it is determined whether you’re worthy of even the most meager pay raise). What’s more, you don’t even know for sure what mastery of the test will be because you’ve seen every year that the state keeps moving the cut score targets. So, you teach all year to prepare your students for a test that none of you is allowed to see until the moment of truth, and you wring your hands and pray to whatever higher power you think may listen that you prepared them for exactly the right things. It’s an educational shell game, plain and simple, and it’s played out every year right under our noses. In a word, it’s insanity. The solution is so simple that it makes too much sense to ever be put into practice by our public education-hostile lawmakers. I could save the state millions and millions of dollars a year–dollars that could then be put back into schools to help teachers and students–if they’d just put me in charge for one day. Here is the solution:

Step 1: Completely scrap standardized testing as we’ve known it

Tell the mega testing corporations their services are no longer needed. Hit the bricks. 

Step 2: Put together a panel of experienced classroom teachers and content experts and let them work to create a new standardized test. 

Not allowing actual classroom teachers to know what’s on the test they and their students are being held accountable to is madness. Teachers write all their own tests for their individual classes every year. We are trusted to do that, so why are we not trusted to write the standardized tests? Put together a panel of teachers and just let them do it. We wouldn’t need to be paid millions of dollars for this, just a reasonably fair stipend would do (I would even consider joining such a panel pro bono). That panel of teachers could be elected as representatives of their region by the schools in which they work. Then let those professionals do their jobs–let them determine which standards will be covered on the tests (and make that public knowledge, that’s critical!), let them then select proper texts to be analyzed on tests, write the questions, and just as importantly, let them have oversight of the grading of the tests. 

Step 3: Develop and administer a pre-test and a post-test.

If you want to judge me on what I actually taught my students during a school year, there is one, and only one, way to fairly do that. You give every student a pre-test (based upon the exact same standards as are covered on the post-test), you establish base-line data on exactly what my students knew about my content before I ever taught any of it to them, and then you administer a post-test at the end of the year. The difference between the pre-test score and the post-test score is what I taught them. Comparing the scores of my students on their pre-tests to my students on their post-tests is the only apples-to-apples comparison by which my professionalism should EVER be judged. Don’t you dare tell me that teachers are afraid to be held accountable! I don’t know a single teacher who would complain that the system I just described wasn’t fair. 

Step 4: Get out of the way and let teachers teach.

It doesn’t get any simpler than that. 

So, I ask you, what’s wrong with my plan. 

And more importantly, why can’t we just do it?

By Shane Phipps;

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