Is The Emperor Wearing New Clothes? Are We Getting Full Value From The STAR Testing Program?
ISSUE 66 | OCTOBER 22, 2004
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In mid-September, this curious owl flew to San Diego, where a gathering of education leaders, parents, and testing officials offered the promise of some serious school talk. The evening's sponsor was Educational Testing Service (ETS), and the head of their K-12 division, John Oswald, flew in with a dozen assistants in tow. State senator Dede Alpert (D-San Diego) was there to moderate. Supt. of Public Instruction Jack O'Connell was present, in good humor, to speak in defense of the STAR program and to listen to parents' questions and concerns. San Diego's school chief, Supt. Alan Bersin, was on the panel, as well.
The star-studded panelists faced an audience of roughly 120 parents, students and some educators. After listening to panelists offer brief comments, Sen. Alpert turned to the audience, opening up the floor for questions. This audience was well prepared for a community conversation; a rare give-and-take with leadership. Some parents in the audience dished out meaty questions. One mother asked why her fifth-grade son, a special education student doing second- and third-grade work, had to take the fifth-grade battery of tests. Another parent challenged the STAR tests' new parent reports. It was not clear, said the parent, whether her child made a year's progress in each subject tested. A third parent challenged the policy of asking English language learners to take tests written in English.
A CHALLENGING QUESTION, AND SUPT. BERSIN'S HONEST ANSWER
But no one was ready for an eighth-grade girl's question to Supt. Bersin. The girl told the panel that she used to get high scores in language arts. She received good grades in the subject and high scores on the STAR test. But the following year, she had a less experienced teacher, who, the girl said, seemed kind of lost. "As a result, I didn't learn as much as I should have. My friends didn't either. So my scores on the STAR tests went way down. Why can't you use our test scores to find out that some teachers, like this one, need help? When everyone's scores go way down from one year to another, isn't it obvious that the teacher is the reason why?"
The feel-good mood of the evening had just been displaced by the razor-sharp intelligence of a 13-year-old student whose question cut to the heart of the issue. She was like the boy who asked, in the fairy tale, why the emperor was wearing no clothes. Indeed, why shouldn't test results be mined to identify not just students who are lagging, but teachers as well?
Supt. Bersin rose to the occasion. With grace, he thanked her for her question. And with candor, he told the student that he would like to go with her to meet with her principal. Together they'd figure out how best to help teachers who are not succeeding. This crusty owl was impressed with Supt. Bersin's sincerity, lack of defensiveness, and his readiness to tackle the problem.
THE ELEPHANT IN THE ROOM
The irony, of course, is that the purpose of the evening's event was to counter the teachers unions attack on the STAR testing program. This year alone, that attack has tried to end testing of second-graders and limit the renewal of the STAR testing program. The teachers union, some years ago, put a law on the books that prevents a principal from using standardized test results in evaluating a teacher's performance. The union is fearful, as well, that test scores may be used to create a pay-for-performance compensation system. Imagine if the differences in teacher effectiveness could be even partially quantified. It would accelerate the trend away from the notion of all teachers as equal, and provide a new reason to question granting tenure after two years.
TENNESSEE KNOWS HOW TO EVALUATE TEACHERS
Test scores do provide ample evidence that, under the right conditions, allows for a careful and fair analysis of how teachers differ in raising their students test scores. Educators in Tennessee use what is called value-added analysis to reveal gains or declines in students' scores that can be attributed to teacher effectiveness. It takes three years of results to reach a comfort zone of statistical significance. Tennessee reached that zone more than five years ago and now provides principals with an analysis of approximately how far each teacher advanced her students in the prior year. Their law, passed in 1992, is based on the path-breaking work of mathematician Bill Sanders, now at the prestigious research firm, SAS, in Cary, North Carolina. Read more about him and his method of measuring progress.
And a recent essay about Mr. Sanders and value-added assessment just appeared in a newsletter from the American Education Research Association (AERA). [PDF document]
With precedents as compelling as Tennessee's, and with students asking incisive questions, perhaps California's education and political leaders are ready to give more than lip service to students' rights to good teaching. A good start would mean removing from the Education Code the clause that prohibits principals from evaluating teachers based on standardized test scores.
value-added assessment unit, led by Bill Sanders.
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