Can standardized testing improve teachers? [AUDIO]

A bill detaching students’ scores on state exams from the way teachers are assessed for hiring and promotion passed the state legislature in January.

This is a huge reversal in state policy — from emphasizing state tests in teacher evaluations to now, almost doing away with them. In this report by WRFI’s John Yoon, teachers in Ithaca weigh in on what might be ahead in the school district once this bill goes through.

The nationwide debate around how teachers may be rated on the quality of their work touches on a question that resists a straightforward answer:

What makes a good teacher?

“They listen to their students and they help them when they need help,” one student at DeWitt Middle School offered a response. “I think when they relate school to our actual lives and they don’t just put thoughts in our brain,” another student said.

Frederick Deppe, a math teacher at Ithaca High School, said he knows his students are learning when they start doing things he doesn’t tell them to do.

“A student found a new way to do a problem that I didn’t teach them,” he said. He encourages students to take creative approaches to math problems in his classroom. “So that was a good moment for me.”

As teachers press policymakers to grapple with this question, the discussion becomes fraught with politics and the broader stakes of equity among both teachers and students.

A decade-long culmination of the state’s endeavor to improve teachers, the current teacher evaluation system the state requires school districts to use has for years unfairly tied students’ performance on standardized exams given by the state to decisions about hiring and tenure, according to teachers and union leaders.

Many in the Ithaca City School District said this system — particularly around the use of test scores — mostly hurt students’ education and the quality of feedback given to teachers.

Although some parts of this process are viewed positively, teachers said they see some serious flaws.

“I could teach my classes complete baloney, and they could fail their Regents exams, and it would have zero impact on my evaluation,” said Steve Weissburg, a math teacher at Ithaca High School. The fact that he is not evaluated by someone with an expertise in math also prevents him being evaluated on the richness of his preparation for classes and knowledge in math, Weissburg said.

Teachers say the two one-hour observations might not be enough, either.

“One year I had 32 students in pre-calculus — which is a lot — so there were a lot of desks in the room. And then I got dinged in my evaluation because the observer said it was hard to move around the classroom — which it was, but I hardly felt like that was my fault,” Weissburg said.

Right now, there is a change in teacher evaluations that’s being anticipated a lot. It has to do with one of the least popular educational policies in the state: the use of students’ scores on state exams.

The state legislature passed a bill on January 23rd reversing the state mandate from 2015 requiring schools to evaluate the effectiveness of teachers and principals based on standardized testing. Teachers and school districts are urging Governor Andrew Cuomo to sign the bill into law.

Teachers say one problem with including state tests in the APPR is that test scores are used even for teachers who don’t teach classes that end with a state exam.

For them, a district average is used, meaning some teachers are judged by the work of students they don’t teach.

This is true for middle school English teacher Kathryn Cernera, a vice president of the Ithaca Teachers Association. This union for teachers negotiates teacher pay and teacher evaluations with the school district.

“None of those exams that are in [my evaluation] score are ones that I give my students,” Cernera said.

Cernera added that the evaluations don’t mirror what she actually teaches.

“In my field of English Language Arts … I don’t give exams. My students show their performance through oral presentations, through projects, through long-form essays,” she said. “When they sit down for a test … it really doesn’t mimic the system that we use in any way in the classroom.”

Another way the implementation of tests has failed is parents opting their kids out of standardized tests. Cernera said 30 to 40 percent of students in Ithaca do not take the exams. The tests results are of little use for her teaching because it only reflects 60 percent of her students.

According to Cernera, the tests don’t help teachers improve their teaching, either.

“We don’t get the test. We don’t get the questions. We don’t know what … contributed to our students’ score. We’ll get this weird score that like they got 320 out of 360, but then the next year it’ll be out of 352 — and the target keeps moving,” she said.

“I have to give my students an exam that I’m not allowed to see on material that I’m not allowed to know what they’re doing. … I can’t use it in any way that’s meaningful.”

Many teachers feel that the tests are neither given to inform instruction nor help teachers make better decisions about their students.

But, suppose they help keep teachers accountable. How do we maintain the quality of teachers and students without tests?

Observations, Cernera said, are the best means we have today to ensure accountability.

“Being in schools every day, and going into classrooms and seeing my colleagues work, I can tell you who’s doing their job, and our principals can tell you who’s doing their job,” Cernera said.

Professor John Sipple, who studies public schools in the United States at Cornell, explained what has worked across the country. He agreed.

“The evidence shows that the closest we get to a good evaluation is much more linked to the peer to peer evaluation and or the real careful administrative observation of teacher practice,” Sipple said.

That means, if test scores are used, there already need to be strong peer evaluations and principal observations to help teachers associate tests scores to specific decisions they make.

“The system falls down when there are perceptions that these exams become superficial and the exams become almost a random of what they’re they’re assessing and not linked directly to what the teachers are teaching,” he said.

Otherwise, with little information about how the tests are connected to curriculum and teaching, APPR looks at only a tiny fraction of what teachers do in the classroom every day.

For Cernera, the current APPR system — including the teacher observation component — is far from perfect.

She said the way they are done in a formalized manner, through the use of a rigid rubric, for example, has actually resulted in her spending less time with administrators talking about her performance.

“It has resulted in me having significantly less feedback on my student performance, significantly less feedback on my performance as a teacher from my administrator,” Cernera said.

Cernera described the teacher evaluation system as a “joke of a system” — a strong sentiment coming from a vice president of the teachers’ union.

But Professor Sipple argues that one big factor is missing from a lot of the discussion about teacher evaluations.

“What I would consider to be the most important issue of our time related to our schooling,” Sipple said, “is this persistent substantial both opportunity and achievement gap that we see all over the place.”

He referred to the gap in test scores between the poor and the middle class, or between black and Hispanic children and their white and Asian peers. The introduction of state exams has made visible, in broad strokes, how closely race, income, and academic performance are tied throughout the United States.

“It’s a crime that we’ve known about this achievement gap for generations and we’re still unable to overcome it,” he said.

Math teacher Steve Weissburg said he sees this first-hand in a class he teaches to high school freshmen who did not pass the middle school state assessments in math.

Under the current teacher evaluation system, which uses test scores, he will be penalized for teaching students whose state assessment scores will likely remain low — despite they will leave his class having learned a lot.

“I haven’t really seen a process that on the one hand, keeps teachers accountable without at the same time penalizing teachers who want to work with more challenging students,” Weissburg said.

The persistence of achievement gaps, under today’s teacher evaluation system, has broader implications, Sipple said.

Insufficient growth in student test scores in a New York State public school would result in pressure to begin a new math program and a new reading program, then to find a new principal, and even to replace the teachers, according to Sipple.

Schools would eventually be pushed to shut down and be reopened under private management or as a charter school.

Going beyond testing, Brian Goodman said teachers may be able to engage struggling kids in their own classrooms. He, for example, hands out a creative math problem to his students once a day to engage kids who struggle with math — like this one:

“Give me as many different ways as possible to make 50 cents out of quarters, nickels, dimes, and pennies. So that’s something that any kid has access to,” Goodman said he tells his students. “Sometimes the out of the box problems, any kid can start coming up with some ways.”

And Goodman said the kids would run with it.

“So I think that, having kids who have never thought it that way, that feels like a good opportunity for kids with math,” he said.

If standardized tests get taken out of the teacher evaluations, this may improve districts’ ability to focus on challenging students.

“I think that a lot of the time when teachers just teach for the test, then kids will forget, like, right after the test. That doesn’t really help you. It just puts more stress on the students,” said one student at DeWitt. “So maybe if we found a different way of testing students abilities, that would be helpful.

So, at least for now, many students, teachers, and experts agree on this: removing the requirement to use state test scores to assess teachers is a huge step forward.

The bill passed the legislature. Now its next stop is Cuomo’s desk.

This piece first aired on WRFI on February 20, 2019.

Image courtesy of U.S. Department of Education.