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RtTT and California

the following is an opinion piece published in the Sacramento Bee that should be of interest to those on this list. One of the authors, David Cohen, is - like me - a member of the Teacher Leaders Network. I think you will find it useful. Below my name is the link, and then the text of the piece.

Ken Bernstein aka teacherken


David B. Cohen and Alex Kajitani: Test scores poor tool for teacher evaluation
Special to The Bee
Published Thursday, Sep. 03, 2009

Education Secretary Arne Duncan is in Sacramento today to promote the new Race to the Top grant program, which offers a chunk of $4.5 billion in federal funds to states that meet federal guidelines, including a requirement to allow standardized test results to be used in individual teacher evaluations.

The link between test scores and teacher performance may seem obvious to the casual observer, but this is a case where appearances and intuition are misleading. As two of California's teachers â the 2009 California Teacher of the Year and a National Board-certified teacher â we urge Duncan and Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger to go back to school regarding the use of test scores for teacher evaluations.

Currently, state education policy prohibits this practice; experts in education, testing and even economics have argued that state tests are not designed for teacher evaluation and will not yield reliable results. You are taking in us in a direction that will harm our schools and our students.

The policy changes promoted through Race to the Top will undo California's thoughtful, research-based and consensus-driven state education policy in an attempt to qualify for federal grants. But after we have exchanged good policy for bad in pursuit of short-term funding, what will we do when the money runs out? We will be stuck with a hastily changed state policy that exacerbates the exact problems that made No Child Left Behind a failed initiative.

The overemphasis on testing does not enhance educational quality, but instead will promote schooling that leaves too many of our children underprepared for higher education, unskilled at critical thinking and less engaged in their communities. Parents and business leaders consistently say they want us to develop in students the types of skills least valued in a test-driven educational atmosphere.

Now, we are not teachers who are afraid of evaluation, or who are trying to protect our jobs. We have both been evaluated rigorously to reach the positions we are in, and we welcome deep and detailed evaluation because it elevates our teaching. Our schools are quite different. (David Cohen works in an affluent community at a high-performing suburban high school, and Alex Kajitani works in a low-performing middle school in one of Southern California's most poverty-stricken neighborhoods.) Neither of us believes that standardized test scores accurately illustrate our students' learning or our abilities as teachers.

Like English teachers across California, Cohen works with a set of standards requiring instruction in a range of language arts skills: reading, writing, listening and speaking. Two of these four standards areas are entirely ignored by state tests that offer no listening or speaking components. The tests mostly measure writing skills by checking some basic proofreading skills, but usually, no actual writing.

The all-important reading assessments are similarly narrow and are further suspect because test-savvy students work backward from the questions and don't have to read the passages, and then rely on a variety of outside knowledge to eliminate obvious wrong answers; meanwhile, test-averse students often post scores masking their true abilities. How then can the practice of an English teacher be accurately measured with tests that hardly overlap with the teaching expected of us?

Kajitani, a math teacher, knows that before each test period it is time to pause the teaching of true problem-solving and conceptual reasoning to be sure that students have memorized the operations on which they will be tested and to refresh their test-taking skills. Effective teachers may know how to squeeze in both "teaching to the test" and teaching real, in-depth critical thinking, but this begs the question of where the teacher's time is best spent, for the true benefit of the children they are educating. We sacrifice better learning for better test scores.

Most state tests yield results that are valuable to teachers if we want to know only how students perform on the tests. When we want to know more about our students and their full range of skills and knowledge, the tests mean very little. Respect for our students and respect for our teaching both demand evaluation based on a broad range of information and multiple measures of performance. Test-driven policies notoriously push in the opposite direction.

Our current education code makes clear that test scores and teacher data are to be used to evaluate systems and programs, not individual teachers. As members of the Accomplished California Teachers network, we support efforts to create more effective evaluations, with greater focus on actual teaching practices, including robust and varied evidence such as student and teacher portfolios. But evaluating individual teachers based on test scores, in a reactionary effort to compete for Race to the Top grant money, is not the answer. It would be a travesty of education reform for the teachers and students of our state.

David B. Cohen teaches ninth and 10th grade English at Palo Alto High School in Palo Alto. Alex Kajitani teaches eighth-grade algebra at Mission Middle School in Escondido in San Diego County. Both belong to the Accomplished California Teachers network.

Kenneth J. Bernstein