Teacher evaluation has emerged as one of the most controversial issues in school reform today. My guest today to discuss evaluation models is Lisa Guisbond. She is a policy analyst for the National Center for Fair and Open Testing, known as FairTest, a Boston-based organization that aims to improve standardized testing practices and evaluations of students, teachers and schools.
By Lisa Guisbond
Growth models are pitched as a thoroughly modern, scientific way to answer the age-old parental question: "What did you learn in school this year, my dear?"
It seems reasonable enough: Test students at the beginning and the end of the year and measure the "growth" in test scores to see if student achievement is improving. Given the narrow and limited nature of the data used to measure this growth, however, there's often less than meets the eye in the results. Fortunately, there are better, if little known or understood, ways of both measuring and stimulating real growth in learning.
The Florida legislature recently tried to climb on the growth model bandwagon, passing Senate Bill 6, which would have spawned a whole new series of tests to both measure student growth and evaluate teachers with the results. Floridians weren't buying that bill's expensive, simplistic and heavy-handed approach, however. Once Florida Gov. Crist got an earful from tens of thousands of his constituents, with 22 opposed for every one in favor, he did the right thing and vetoed the bill.
Nonetheless, there's widespread acknowledgment that we need better ways of measuring student growth. No Child Left Behind's approach of comparing one year's fourth graders to the next, for example, makes little sense.
Teachers and many parents understand that a class's makeup can vary widely from year to year. If 4th grade test scores leap from one year to the next, it may appear that the teacher has suddenly gone from lackluster to superior, but what really happened was two or three high-achievers moved into the neighborhood, or a child with severe academic challenges moved out.
Lost in the shuffle is the trajectory of individual fourth graders as they tackle fifth grade work. It means a lot if a child goes from being unable to read to being an enthusiastic reader and confident member of the class, even if test scores are not yet "proficient," but NCLB doesn't recognize this as an achievement.
So measuring growth would be a big step forward. The problem with most current systems is they measure growth by using standardized test scores in a few academic subjects, usually math and reading, which are not a very accurate or comprehensive way to check on overall student progress.
They simply leave out too much that matters, including other academic subjects, like social studies and science, electives, as well as an array of skills and capacities we expect students to be developing, such as critical thinking, problem solving, creativity, collaboration, communication.
Measuring student growth without relying solely on narrow standardized tests involves looking at multiple measures of student learning, such as essay exams, portfolios of students' work in various subjects, and group projects that require analysis, investigation, experimentation, cooperation, and written, oral, or graphic presentation of findings.
An individual student's learning growth in one year or over the course of several years could be assessed by creating a record of student achievement that includes representative examples of student work.
Standardized test scores could be one piece of evidence in such a record, as well as examples of essay exams, group projects, and so on.
Such a record would offer concrete evidence of a student's growth in writing, for example, showing the improvement from a weak essay early in the year to a strong, organized, grammatical and compelling piece of writing later on. A DVD could be included to document the growth in a student's ability to speak in front of the class, as could be examples of group projects from earlier and later in a student's career, showing improvement in the ability to communicate and collaborate. (More details are in this report from the Forum on Educational Accountability.)
There are several important payoffs from using multiple measures.
First, measuring a broad array of subjects and skills encourages teachers to teach them all and try to do it well. It's well known that NCLB's narrow focus on reading and math test scores meant that too many students, especially poor students, ended up with little in their school day other than preparation to take tests in math and reading. How deadly can you get?
If we moved to using these richer measures in all of our schools, it could mean that not just upper middle class and affluent kids at schools like Sidwell Friends School, where President Obama's children attend, but poor public school kids too would be taught and expected to demonstrate the ability to think, express original ideas, problem solve, work in teams, do research papers and other kinds of projects requiring critical thinking.
Second, measuring and promoting this kind of learning would accomplish Obama's stated goal of helping make every kid college- and career-ready in ways that test prep simply doesn't.
College professors have probably always complained that too few students are ready to tackle the demands of college-level work. Employers too have long complained that they can't find qualified workers to fill their openings.
But more and more college instructors are noticing that kids nurtured on test prep are simply unprepared for the kind of reading, thinking, writing and inquiry demanded at the college level. It's left up to them to teach freshmen how to think.
Third, by using these kinds of high-quality assessments, we'd be following in the footsteps and reaping the same benefits as high-achieving nations like Finland and Singapore. We might be able to stop incessantly worrying that foreign students will eat our children's lunch (or is it have our children for lunch?).
The slightly more complicated part is taking this array of multiple measures information and using it systematically to determine growth in a way that can be used to hold schools accountable.
Next time, we will introduce how that can be done.
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