SILVER SPRING, Md., November 8, 2012 — In this guest editorial, teacher Eileen Riley-Hall, author of Parenting Girls on the Autism Spectrum, writes about how evaluating teachers based on students’ test scores hurts children.
My daughter Caroline is a bright, sweet, inquisitive thirteen year-old. She also has autism. Over the past seven years of school, Caroline has made amazing progress because she always been included in the general education classroom with the help of a 1:1 aide.
In fifth grade she won the spelling bee for her grade. In seventh grade she won a science award. Now, in eighth grade she is learning algebra. For the past three years, she has participated in the school band, playing her very own purple trumpet. Caroline has also made friends, discovered her talents, and found a way to belong. Her work ethic is stellar, and her attitude towards school is unfailingly positive.
However, according to the New York State Education department, Caroline has learned nothing and shown no growth over the course of her entire school career.
Her scores on standardized tests are always “ones,” the lowest possible category in the New York State Education Department’s four-point rubric, created in response to the Federal Education Department’s No Child Left Behind Act. This year, Caroline’s low scores on standardized tests will not only deem her a failure, but under the new teacher evaluation system, these tests scores will also be considered evidence that her teachers are ineffective.
To say this is ludicrous would be a vast understatement. Caroline’s teachers are some of the most dedicated and creative teachers I have ever known. They choose to work with kids who struggle and they do so with love, optimism and energy. I know how hard that is—both as a parent and teacher.
I have taught high school English in public schools for over 20 years, working with a wide range of children, from gifted honors students to reluctant summer school draftees. Like Caroline’s teachers, I work my hardest and best when teaching the struggling learners: kids who have special challenges like autism, those who come from chaotic families, and the kids for whom academics are just plain hard.
And like Caroline’s teachers, I know what my students learn and the ways in which they grow cannot be adequately or accurately measured by a standardized test. I can “train” my students for the test through laborious and time-consuming drill, and some of them will show “improvement” based on the narrow focus of a state assessment. However, that score means little in the scheme of their educations, even less in the scheme of their lives.
I want my students to learn to read the newspaper, journal their thoughts, ask questions. I try to teach them about the value of hard work, the pride of real accomplishment, the responsibility they have to care about their country, their world, and each other. We don’t read To Kill a Mockingbird simply to write test essays; we read it to remind us of what it is to be a truly fine person—a quality not measured by multiple choice questions.
I understand the need for accountability in teaching. Like many parents, I have been disappointed by a few of my daughters’ teachers, but I truly believe those teachers are the exception, not the rule. Evaluating teachers by standardized tests will not eliminate the bad teachers, but ironically punish the ones who often work the hardest.
The only way to truly evaluate teachers is for qualified administrators to watch them teach. I have no doubt anyone observing Caroline’s classes would be both humbled and heartened by the devotion her teachers show to their students.
We are lucky; my girls’ school district is a good one staffed by fine teachers, but an integral reason for its success is that most children arrive at school ready to learn, loved and cared for by their parents. Schools generally reflect the communities they serve more than shape them. The schools that struggle most with student performance are those whose students live in poverty and suffer from all the hardships that go along with it. Rather than help, reliance on standardized tests will simply further marginalize these children and will unfairly punish the very teachers who are trying to help them.
For several years, I tried to have Caroline exempted from the state assessments, for her sake and now her teachers’, but federal mandates prohibit such a reprieve. I shake my head at so much faith placed in number two pencils and the ability to navigate a series of tricky multiple choice questions, a skill, by the way, never actually used in “real life.”
I worry that this new regiment of teacher assessment will ultimately lead the way for Caroline to return to sequestered self-contained classes, where she will be “alternately assessed” apart from her peers and the opportunities they and the general education classes offer.
How long can inclusion last if scores like Caroline’s count against a good teacher? What teacher will choose to willingly teach struggling children, a decidedly harder task than teaching the gifted, only to suffer for their noble efforts when their students show “no improvement” on a test? And if a valiant teacher does choose to help kids like my daughter, how long will that teacher be around before she is deemed “ineffective” and thus removed?
There is no-one-size-fits-all way to teach or assess student learning. Children are individuals after all, not assembly line products. So Caroline and I are on shifting sands. She hates taking those tests that make her feel, in her own words, “not good at school.” What will Caroline’s future bring when graduation depends on standardized tests?
In New York State, there is no longer a local high school diploma, only a Regents diploma based exclusively on a college preparatory curriculum. If New York State and the Federal Education Department deem her a failure, what does that say about what the government values in education?
What will my future bring if I continue to teach kids like my sweet Caroline? Will I also find myself cast out? Only time will tell, and in the meantime, we will all suffer. Right now, Caroline is about to be abandoned on the road to school, watching the taillights of the school bus fading in the distance as it rushes the good test takers off to fill in another bubble sheet with their number two pencils.
The educational gurus can call it whatever they want, but to Caroline and a lot of other kids, it feels a whole lot like being left behind.
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