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Not Making the Grade by Julie Cavanagh at the Huffington Post

Julie Cavanagh is a member of GEM and CAPE

Julie Cavanagh

Julie Cavanagh

Posted: November 4, 2010 02:52 AM

I have always found report cards to be a double-edged sword. On one side, they increase my opportunity to interact with parents because they are part of an age old system that connects the school house to home. On the other, I have always found report cards to be a fairly useless tool in highlighting for parents the real progress and achievement of their child in our classroom and since I am always in contact with parents anyway, they really are quite pointless.

The idea of grades in general, is an unnatural one. Learning, real learning, should not be spawned by a desire for a ‘good grade’, but rather by a love of learning. Truly authentic learning cannot be viewed through the narrow lens of a test driven system, as we have now, rather it should be a student centered, systematic approach driven by culturally relevant curriculum that cultivates a natural curiosity. Report cards today, especially here in New York City, are tightly tied to measurement systems that stifle growth and subordinate individualized instruction. This is not to say that we do not need tools to assess student learning, but what we produce for parents often does not paint a comprehensive picture of their child as a learner and thinker. This is why in addition to the mandated report cards required; portfolios are an integral part of my classroom assessment culture.

Learning does not neatly fall in chronological constructs that are correlated with a curriculum that is too often tied to standardized tests and reinforced with sticks and carrots. Rather, learning should be driven by passion, interest, and the cultivation of self-motivation. Portfolios, and the teacher created assessments and student artifacts you will find in portfolios, are a much more effective way of creating a picture of a child’s growth, strengths, and weaknesses. The only problem with portfolios as assessment tools is they do not fit into the quantitative structure our country is obsessed with. hey require trusting our educators and treating them as professionals, which is not the climate we are living in. This is evidenced by the fact that we now want to submit teachers to the same kind of test driven report card data we wrongly evaluate our children with.

Recently there has been a push to publish teacher data report cards. These data report cards assess teachers based on their students’ performance and progress on standardized tests. We have seen this trend cropping up across the country most notably in Los Angeles, where teacher report card data was published in the LA Times. Here in New York City, the Department of Education is trying to publish teacher report card data that is highly flawed- even according to the creators of the data reports themselves, and should not be used for evaluative purposes. This highlights the political nature of teacher data reports. They are nothing more than a tool in undermining not only the teaching profession, but public education as a whole.

It should be noted that the drive to tie students and teachers tightly to standardized test data is being pushed from the top down with millions in Race to the Top funds, money that should have gone to our children. Instead, these millions will largely be spent on not only developing more tests, but on creating evaluation systems, particularly for teachers, based on standardized tests. The focus on high stakes testing, and using this data to evaluate not only our students, but our teachers is simply a wrong-headed idea. Here are some of the many reasons why:

  1. Intense focus on standardized testing narrows the curriculum and encourages ‘gaming’ of the system.
  2. Our best teachers will avoid teaching testing grades and subjects. What good teacher wants to submit themselves and their students to a regiment of test preparation, testing, and evaluation based on testing? One of the reasons I left the testing grades was because I felt I was complicit in the systematic abuse of children through testing; I was forced to test my students with special needs more than 12 times last year, and that doesn’t include the test prep, practice tests, and the authentic assessments I use to really drive my instruction. I was successful according to test measures, but I reject those measures.
  3. Teacher data report cards are the vehicle for a merit-pay based system. There is little to no data or research that supports this kind of a system. The Vanderbilt study is one of the most notable on this issue. Also see the Economic Policy Institute briefing paper on the issue.
  4. Teacher data report cards, and student evaluation systems based on standardized testing, do not produce data that is useful to educators and parents in obtaining a clear picture of what a child knows and needs to know, nor do they provide data that can drive instruction. Assessments should be used as constant ‘temperature takings’ so parents and educators can continually work with their children and further their achievement. Teacher data report cards and student test scores are not even released until the school year AFTER the child took the test, when the child is no longer with that teacher or on that grade.
  5. Teacher data report cards are highly politicized and are being used a wedge issue in an attempt to divide parents and teachers. Various surveys reveal that the vast majority of American families are happy with their child’s teacher, yet you would never know this from the national dialogue. The use of these reports and the release of them is nothing more than a divide and conquer strategy.

The saying goes, “live by the sword, die by the sword.” Our over reliance on standardized testing and the focus on tying students and educators to these very narrow scores will not only suffocate the creativity and innovation that is so important to authentic learning, it will also kill our public education system; perhaps that is the intention.

    POSTED by Norm Scott
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