Monday, July 5, 2010

We're Not All Math and English Teachers

Yesterday the Des Moines Register published an editorial applauding Colorado for reforming its teacher evaluation laws. The editorial goes on to criticize Iowa's reforms, saying the state is "moving too cautiously." Iowa requires teachers to "provide multiple forms of evidence of student learning and growth," but the Register is disappointed that the inclusion of standardized test scores is not required.

When will the public and policymakers realize that not every subject is covered by a standardized test? I feel like this is one of the most overlooked aspects of this argument. We're not all math and English teachers! Colorado spends 3 hours, per subject, each school year to measure every grade 3-10 student's achievement in math, reading, and writing (plus 3 hours for science in grades 5, 8, and 10). In a state that requires a minimum of 1080 hours of student contact time, this minimum of 9 hours of testing represents less than 1% of a school year. If only it felt like so little!

But that's only for math and English. If you want to mandate teacher evaluations based on standardized tests, you need equally rigorous tests for every subject and every teacher. Can you imagine tests for P.E., music, art, or vocational courses? What if schools could only offer classes that were backed by standardized tests?

Let's also consider the extra time required. Suppose students average 7 Carnegie units (credits) per year. At 3 hours per subject and 7 subjects, we're up to 21 hours of testing per year. If you were to require that standardized tests measure student growth, you'd need to test each student both at the beginning of the year and at the end. Doubling the testing takes us to 42 hours, or almost 4% of the year. It still may not sound like much, but students aren't going to be testing 7 hours a day for 6 straight days. If students tested 2 hours daily, the testing schedule would stretch out to 21 days, or about a month of the school year (half at the beginning, half at the end). You thought finals week was bad? Try two weeks!

Unfortunately, I have yet to work in any school that could carry on with regular learning during standardized test times. We tried everything from one test per day to four, mixed with full-length classes meeting on a rotation to all classes meeting on a shortened schedules. No matter how little testing is done, that testing time affects everything else in the day. Can you imagine a month spent like that?

This little rant has come from me, a guy who has almost always been pro-test. They have their place in the educational system and are part of an effective assessment strategy. But when people want every teacher to be measured by their students' standardized test scores, we have to think about the possible ramifications. So be careful what you wish for, Des Moines Register!