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Randi Weingarten: Teaching and Learning Over Testing

Randi Weingarten
President, American Federation of Teachers

I’m often asked how I can be in favor of the Common Core State Standards while opposing the standardized-testing fixation in education and other failed market-based education strategies. The question is as revealing as the answer; unfortunately, the standards have come to be associated with testing rather than the deeper learning they were intended to promote.

If we believe that public education is an anchor of democracy, a propeller of our economy and the vehicle through which we help all children achieve their dreams, then we have to make public education about three things: helping our students build trusting relationships — with both their peers and adults; equipping them with essential knowledge and the tools to critically think and problem solve; and perhaps most important, helping them develop persistence and grit — the ability and means to deal with disappointment and lack of success.

At its heart, the Common Core is a set of standards designed to help make the transition from just knowing and memorizing information to having the skills and habits to apply knowledge, which is critically important in today’s world.

Many distrust the motives of those promoting the Common Core because there’s been a rush to test and measure educators and students on these standards before educators have had the time or tools to make these standards come alive in classrooms. Instead of being valued and trusted, educators are simply being told to just do it, and their criticisms are being ignored or disparaged. As a result of botched implementation in places like New York, many parents, teachers and students are beginning to view the Common Core as something destructive instead of something that will actually help children succeed in college, career and life. There are far too many stories about teachers being handed 500-page binders and told to read the scripted lessons verbatim, and about children coming home crying and saying they no longer love school. And now the Koch brothers and deep-pocketed conservative activists are attempting to use that anxiety to push an anti-public education agenda of vouchers, privatization, and attacks on teachers and their unions.

While we believe strongly in the promise and potential of the Common Core, and we’ve seen good implementation firsthand, these standards will be meaningless if policymakers keep reducing them to a test score.

Even worse, we are losing the promise and purpose of public education — and the joy — by trying to reduce everything about teaching and learning, whether for students or teachers, to a number or algorithm.

Test scores and black-box algorithms can’t help children critically think and problem solve. These strategies don’t help children build trusting relationships and instill confidence and persistence. And they ignore the countless other ways educators nurture and develop our children.

The fixation on testing and data over everything else is a fundamental flaw in how our nation approaches public education. No other nation in the world tests every student nearly every year. And no other nation relies so heavily on a test score to rank and sort teachers. And we continue to move in the wrong direction.

Just look at what’s happened with the over-reliance on tests and value-added methodology (VAM). VAM is an incomprehensible formula, at least to those who don’t have a Ph.D. in advanced statistics, which attempts to predict how a teacher’s students will score in the future by using past test scores and other various assumptions — and then compares that prediction to actual results. Like predicting the weather, VAM is subject to many factors that influence the final result. That VAM score is then used to sort, rank and evaluate teachers.

The AFT has always been leery about VAM — and we’ve said since day one that VAM should never be the singular measure of student learning used to evaluate teachers. In fact, I questioned the fairness, accuracy and reliability of value-added metrics in a 2007 New York Times column. We have enough evidence today to make it clear that not only has VAM not worked, it’s been really destructive and it’s emboldened those seeking to turn public education into a numbers game.

Pittsburgh teachers acted in good faith to partner with the district on an evaluation system that included VAM with multiple measures of student learning. But while the system was being designed, anti-public education legislation was passed in Pennsylvania that hijacked a promising professional growth system by making it a numbers game fixated on ranking, sorting and firing teachers.

In Florida, the system went completely haywire, giving teachers value-added scores for students they had never taught or who weren’t even in the same building. One example is Mrs. Cook, an elementary school teacher who was named teacher of the year by her colleagues but was labeled unsatisfactory based on a VAM score calculated the performance of students she hadn’t taught.

In 2011, the average margin of error for VAM scores in New York City was plus or minus 28 points.

We have heard similar stories in Los Angeles, New Mexico, Houston and elsewhere. But what happened in Washington, D.C., was really the last straw. Last month, right before the holiday break, the district announced that some VAM scores were incorrect due to a technical glitch — a technical glitch that affected the lives and livelihoods of the educators who received these scores. As of today, 44 teachers have been told their scores from last year were wrong (including one teacher who was fired). And the district’s response was simply to say it was a minor issue. Would the district have the same reaction if it involved 44 students? When you use a system for such high stakes–a system that lacks transparency, accuracy and reliability on so many levels–how can you ever expect the teachers to trust the system?

I may have labeled VAM a sham, but many others built the evidence base for it.

The RAND Corp. and the Board on Testing and Assessment of the National Research Council of the National Academy of Sciences both conclude that VAM results shouldn’t be used to evaluate individual teachers.

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