[Marxism] No Student Left Untested

Louis Proyect lnp3 at panix.com
Thu Feb 23 07:25:05 MST 2012


No Student Left Untested
Diane Ravitch

Last week, the New York State Education Department and the 
teachers’ unions reached an agreement to allow the state to use 
student test scores to evaluate teachers. The pact was brought to 
a conclusion after Governor Andrew Cuomo warned the parties that 
if they didn’t come to an agreement quickly, he would impose his 
own solution (though he did not explain what that would be). He 
further told school districts that they would lose future state 
aid if they didn’t promptly implement the agreement after it was 
released to the public. The reason for this urgency was to secure 
$700 million promised to the state by the Obama administration’s 
Race to the Top program, contingent on the state’s creating a plan 
to evaluate teachers in relation to their students’ test scores.

The new evaluation system pretends to be balanced, but it is not. 
Teachers will be ranked on a scale of 1-100. Teachers will be 
rated as “ineffective, developing, effective, or highly 
effective.” Forty percent of their grade will be based on the rise 
or fall of student test scores; the other sixty percent will be 
based on other measures, such as classroom observations by 
principals, independent evaluators, and peers, plus feedback from 
students and parents.

But one sentence in the agreement shows what matters most: 
“Teachers rated ineffective on student performance based on 
objective assessments must be rated ineffective overall.” What 
this means is that a teacher who does not raise test scores will 
be found ineffective overall, no matter how well he or she does 
with the remaining sixty percent. In other words, the 40 percent 
allocated to student performance actually counts for 100 percent. 
Two years of ineffective ratings and the teacher is fired.

The New York press treated the agreement as a major breakthrough 
that would lead to dramatic improvement in the schools. The media 
assumed that teachers and principals in New York State would now 
be measured accurately, that the bad ones would be identified and 
eventually ousted, and that the result would be big gains in test 
scores. Only days earlier, a New York court ruled that the media 
will be permitted to publish the names and rankings of teachers in 
New York City, even if the rankings are inaccurate. Thus, the 
scene has been set: Not only will teachers and principals be 
rated, but those ratings can now be released to the public online 
and in the press.

The consequences of these policies will not be pretty. If the way 
these ratings are calculated is flawed, as most testing experts 
acknowledge they are, then many good educators will be subject to 
public humiliation and will leave the profession. Once those 
scores are released to the media, we can expect that parents will 
object if their children are assigned to “bad” teachers, and 
principals will have a logistical nightmare trying to squeeze most 
children into the classes of the highest-ranked teachers. Will 
parents sue if their children do not get the “best” teachers?

New York’s education officials are obsessed with test scores. The 
state wants to find and fire the teachers who aren’t able to 
produce higher test scores year after year. But most testing 
experts believe that the methods for calculating teachers’ assumed 
“value-added” qualities—that is, their abilities to produce higher 
test scores year after year—are inaccurate, unstable, and 
unreliable. Teachers in affluent suburbs are likelier to get 
higher value-added scores than teachers of students with 
disabilities, students learning English, and students from extreme 
poverty. All too often, the rise or fall of test scores reflects 
the composition of the classroom and factors beyond the teachers’ 
control, not the quality of the teacher. A teacher who is rated 
effective one year may well be ineffective the next year, 
depending on which students are assigned to his or her class.

The state is making a bet that threatening to fire and publicly 
humiliate teachers it deems are underperforming will be sufficient 
to produce higher test scores. Since most teachers in New York do 
not teach tested subjects (reading and mathematics in grades 3-8), 
the state will require districts to create measures for everything 
that is taught (called, in state bureaucratese, “student learning 
objectives”) for all the others. So, in the new system, there will 
be assessments in every subject, including the arts and physical 
education. No one knows what those assessments will look like. 
Everything will be measured, not to help students, but to evaluate 
their teachers. If the district’s own assessments are found to be 
not sufficiently rigorous by State Commissioner of Education John 
King (who has only three years of teaching experience, two in 
charter schools), he has the unilateral power to reject them.

This agreement will certainly produce an intense focus on teaching 
to the tests. It will also profoundly demoralize teachers, as they 
realize that they have lost their professional autonomy and will 
be measured according to precise behaviors and actions that have 
nothing to do with their own definition of good teaching. 
Evaluators will come armed with elaborate rubrics identifying 
precisely what teachers must do and how they must act, if they 
want to be successful. The New York Times interviewed a principal 
in Tennessee who felt compelled to give a low rating to a good 
teacher, because the teacher did not “break students into groups” 
in the lesson he observed. The new system in New York will require 
school districts across the state to hire thousands of independent 
evaluators, as well as create much additional paperwork for 
principals. Already stressed school budgets will be squeezed 
further to meet the pact’s demands for monitoring and reporting.

President Obama said in his State of the Union address that 
teachers should “stop teaching to the test,” but his own Race to 
the Top program is the source of New York’s hurried and 
wrong-headed teacher evaluation plan. According to Race to the 
Top, states are required to evaluate teachers based in part on 
their students’ test scores in order to compete for federal 
funding. When New York won $700 million from the Obama program, it 
pledged to do this. What the President has now urged (“stop 
teaching to the test”) is directly contradicted by what his own 
policies make necessary (teach to the test or be rated ineffective 
and get fired).

No high-performing nation in the world evaluates teachers by the 
test scores of their students; and no state or district in this 
nation has a successful program of this kind. The State of 
Tennessee and the city of Dallas have been using some type of 
test-score based teacher evaluation for twenty years but are not 
known as educational models. Across the nation, in response to the 
prompting of Race to the Top, states are struggling to evaluate 
their teachers by student test scores, but none has figured it out.

All such schemes rely on standardized tests as the ultimate 
measure of education. This is madness. The tests have some value 
in measuring basic skills and rote learning, but their overuse 
distorts education. No standardized test can accurately measure 
the quality of education. Students can be coached to guess the 
right answer, but learning this skill does not equate to acquiring 
facility in complex reasoning and analysis. It is possible to have 
higher test scores and worse education. The scores tell us nothing 
about how well students can think, how deeply they understand 
history or science or literature or philosophy, or how much they 
love to paint or dance or sing, or how well prepared they are to 
cast their votes carefully or to be wise jurors.

Of course, teachers should be evaluated. They should be evaluated 
by experienced principals and peers. No incompetent teacher should 
be allowed to remain in the classroom. Those who can’t teach and 
can’t improve should be fired. But the current frenzy of blaming 
teachers for low scores smacks of a witch-hunt, the search for a 
scapegoat, someone to blame for a faltering economy, for the 
growing levels of poverty, for widening income inequality.

For a decade, the Bush-era federal law called No Child Left Behind 
has required the nation’s public schools to test every student in 
grades 3-8 in reading and mathematics. Now, the Obama 
administration is pressuring the states to test every grade and 
every subject. No student will be left untested. Every teacher 
will be judged by his or her students’ scores. Cheating scandals 
will proliferate. Many teachers will be fired. Many will leave 
teaching, discouraged by the loss of their professional autonomy. 
Who will take their place? Will we ever break free of our national 
addiction to data? Will we ever stop to wonder if the data mean 
anything important? Will education survive school reform?

February 21, 2012, 11:45 a.m.

More information about the Marxism mailing list