Saturday, January 26, 2013

Scrap the MAP - A Principled Protest

I attended the recent protest at the Seattle Public Schools headquarters regarding the MAP test. Garfield High School teachers initiated this protest recently when they banded together and decided not to give the MAP test to their students.

It was a positive, upbeat, and very motivated group of about 150 people, comprised of teachers, parents, retired teachers, administrators, librarians, and even some students. People came from Tacoma, Everett, Bellevue, Marysville, and Snohomish. We got a phone call from the Chicago union. People here are fed up, but not angry. They have intelligent, specific reasons for being here and opposing this and other tests. They are determined to see change, not desperate or panicked.

I spoke to several people there. Most had been teaching for several years, some even for a lifetime. This is not insignificant.

A brand new teacher, just like someone brand new to anything, has no prior experience to base an opinion on. So if they show up in September and are told, “We’re going to take your students away for several days to test them on a subject you don’t teach, and oh, by the way, we’ll do it again in the winter and the spring, so cut out a week of your less important curriculum,” that teacher will just figure this is how things are done here, and deal with it.

An experienced teacher on the other hand, one is already tired of all the other days students are pulled out for testing of various kinds, will see this as another assault on their instruction. So we pull kids out more and more, and then cry out for “teacher accountability,” expecting us to be more effective even with less time for instructing students. Makes sense to me.

Testing History
So, I met several experienced teachers. One lady I spoke to, who is retired, gave me a little history of testing in Seattle. Back in the 40's, students used to take the Stanford Achievement Test (not the same as the SAT). Later, they moved on to the California Achievement Test. After the CAT, it was the ITBS (the Iowa Test for Basic Skills).

Notice how the acronyms get more complicated as the years progress. That’s why I use the term PeWKoB to describe the People Who Know Better–the wealthy and influential people who meddle in education, even though they’ve never worked in the field and know little about it, but have the money to get their names in the paper and their ideas taken seriously.  Ideas such as more testing. The PeWKoB includes Bill Gates, Steven Brill, the League of Education Voters, Stand for Children, Michelle Rhee, and many, many other organizations.

Another website I recently discovered calls them the “edushysters,” which I thought was clever.

After the ITBS, it was the WASL, a debacle that lasted over ten years. And finally, with the election of Randy Dorn–one of the few sensible people I’ve seen break into the upper class of education policy–it changed again to the HSPE, which is now partially being replaced by the EOCs for various courses. I call Dorn sensible because he wants to reduce the testing burden. The WASL used to eat up two full weeks of school. His first year, he cut that in half. Now, he wants even fewer EOC tests. I want none. But we’re making progress.

Does Testing Improve Teaching?
But with all this testing, has it made a difference? How is one test better or worse than another? At the end of the day, it’s what happens in the classroom that matters. Have any of these tests significantly changed that for the better in all of the last sixty years?

My teaching has improved a lot in my 12 years. But not because of testing. That hasn’t made a single shred of difference. I’ve gotten better at teaching by teaching, and by reflecting on my practice and how well my students learn based on what I do. I’ve improved because of some effective professional development offered through the district, collaborating with local universities, that I took a few years ago. And I’ve improved by talking with other teachers and working together.

Evaluation doesn’t make a difference. Testing doesn’t make a difference. My salary doesn’t make a difference. The union doesn’t make a difference. None of these things make any difference in the quality of my instruction. I’m not saying they have no purpose (except testing). But they don’t have any impact on my teaching ability.

Real Solutions
I asked another teacher for her ideas on how to improve student learning. She pointed to the absence of counselors at the elementary level in Title 1 schools. These are schools in high poverty areas, and the students there are particularly vulnerable, and in need of extra assistance if we want more of them to succeed. She also pointed to the shoddy new math curriculum, about which much conflict has ensued in Seattle. 5/7 will always be equal to 15/21. Calculators don’t do any favors for 3rd graders. Skills matter.

Another teacher, a physics teacher, said assessment has to be valid and related to the course. There’s a great one called the Force Concept Inventory that tests conceptual physics understanding. I’ve taken it. It’s a very good assessment of real understanding. A similar one I give my students is called the Chemical Concept Inventory. These are far better in every way compared to the goofy stuff forced on us by district and state (and nation? Please no).

Besides being valid assessments, their best attribute is that they’re short!  The CCI only takes about thirty minutes, and I know all I need to know about my students’ understanding of chemistry.

If state lawmakers, district leaders, the PeWKoB, and most importantly, the public, would just let us be professionals, and trust us that we know what we’re doing (which most of us do, by the way, to the chagrin of people like Rhee and Brill), maybe we could focus more of our time and energy on what actually matters in schools–learning.

Speakers - Chris McBride and Jesse Hagopian
Several speakers got up and gave short exhortations about why the MAP ought to be scrapped. Garfield’s test coordinator (yes, this is a real much testing is forced on schools that we need an entire position just to coordinate all of them. How much money is that? What if all these people were teaching instead? Less class size? More course offerings? What’s more important? What do we value most?), Chris McBride, expressed this exact sentiment, calling the MAP an “unnecessary expense” and a “drain on resources.”

Indeed, besides the millions of dollars the MAP and all the other tests cost, there’s the position of test coordinator–her own position! But again, most people in her position were teachers before this “promotion.” Eliminate all this waste of personnel and put them back in the classrooms where they will make a real difference.

Jesse Hagopian, who explained the reasoning of teachers at Garfield in a recent op-ed, talked about the “inequality and unfairness” of the MAP, and spoke about the more important values of creativity and critical thinking that education really needs to be about. Try as they have with the WASL and the HSPE, these abilities simply can’t be tested. They are grown in the student as part of a complex process of development. I call it “maturity.” I’m sure there are other words. But these things can’t be tested.

Noam Gundle – Humanity of Students
Noam Gundle, who teaches at Ballard, said one test cannot define a student. This is a critical point to emphasize, because it is a reminder of the humanity of our students. They are not numbers. They are not products coming off an assembly line (though the people who want us to run schools “like businesses” erroneously think so).  These tests have the effect of placing great value on a score, and devaluing the other aspects of the individual.

Listen. The top scoring student in the district is not the best student. In fact, the perpetrator in a recent shooting in Seattle was a child prodigy in computers who took college courses at the age of 13, and later earned and electrical engineering degree. He got in a fit of road rage and shot a guy in a nearby car. I’m always fascinated when the “smartest” people in the country end up killing people, or stealing billions of dollars, or running large banks and corporations that ruined the economy while getting off with exorbitant bonuses.

Maybe being “smart,” scoring well, and excelling in academics isn’t necessarily all it’s cracked up to be. Maybe there’s more to life than getting A’s. Maybe education can’t solve all the world’s problems. Maybe we should relax a bit and realize this is just one part of life, and that learning is not about facts only, but about wisdom, truth, moral courage, the ability to think critically and honestly. Test scores are so tiny–infinitesimal really–when compared to what really matters in this life.

I am a teacher. Not a miracle worker. To mock a famous documentary, even Superman can only be in one place at a time. And even he can only help one kid at a time. And even Superman can’t force a kid to learn who doesn’t want to. They have to want him to help them.

PTA President - We Know Who’s Struggling
The president of the Garfield PTA (Parent Teacher Association) then got up and made the excellent point that we already know which kids are struggling. The CEO of the company that sold us the MAP, while our superintendent was on their board (no ethics issue there, right?), recently wrote an op-ed defending his test, saying it helps teachers find out which students are struggling, and in which areas.

Again, this presumes that without tests like this, teachers would be helpless, wandering in the dark, unable to determine how well their students are doing. It is a lack of trust that we know how to do our jobs. In addition, if this were true, how did we possibly manage for the hundred years before the MAP arrived in 2008? What did we do? How did students survive?

It’s totally ridiculous to suggest these tests are the only way to identify struggling students. We already know! Within about a month of the school year, I know which students will need more help. It’s just not that hard to figure out.

More importantly, though–much, much more importantly–I also know which students want my help. But I don’t need some corporate, bureaucratic assessment written by people who’ve never taught to tell me which of my students, who I see every day, are struggling. That’s called “teaching,” and I do it every day. I already know. Stop wasting millions telling us what we already know.

I know my students so well that I can actually predict how well they will do on their finals. Shocking, right? Not really. By the end of the semester, I know who’s who. And, I’m comfortable with the reality that not every student will master everything. I just want them to work hard, and learn the best they can, and leave knowing much more than they did when they got here. For every student who wants my help, this happens. Every single one of them. That’s my job, and I do it.

You may be wondering, what about the students who don’t want your help? Well, what about them? I give it my best. But at some point, you realize it’s pretty hard to help someone who doesn’t want it. As they say, you can lead a horse to water...okay, you’ve heard that. Funny, these famous sayings are famous because....they’re true?

Overall, it was an enjoyable day, and I’m hoping the district thoughtfully considers the reasons behind the protest. I hope they openly and honestly weigh the pros and cons, and think about what we value more–yet another set of data, or more time with our students. A questionable way to evaluate less than 10% of teachers, or more computer lab and library time for all students. A redundant way figure out what we already know about students, or more time for teachers to collaborate and work to improve their instruction?

Why Protest the MAP?
So you may be wondering, with all these other tests, why are teachers seizing on the MAP as the one to protest? Let’s get in to some of the specifics of how it works, and why it doesn’t work in the ways the district wants to use it.

The MAP is a unique sort of test because the questions vary for each student. It’s computerized, and its seeks to establish their current skill level based on the questions they get right and wrong, and it tailors the questions it asks them based on this.

Thus, it’s not really about your score; it’s about progress. Did you do better this time than last time? If so, that’s growth, and you must have learned. For this to be useful, however, students have to be tested frequently. Like, three times a year. And due to the nature of the test, and the fact schools have hundreds of students taking it, the MAP monopolizes the computer lab for weeks at a time, three times per year.

At the protest, the librarian at the Seattle World School said the MAP even takes over their library. Students wanting books or other library services are turned away because of the all-important testing going on. For weeks.

Furthermore, the district wants to use it to evaluate teacher effectiveness, and base their evaluations partly on this. This is problematic for several reasons.

First, only a handful of teachers give this test. In high school, only language arts and math teachers–and only those who teach freshmen and some sophomores–actually give this test. So out a staff with more than sixty teachers, about five of them will be “evaluated” by the MAP. Five out of sixty. How will the district evaluate the other fifty-five? Is it fair to hold these five to a higher standard just because they happen to teach these grades and courses?

Second, the fact that student scores seem to vary widely from test to test, and that in other cases the variations do not exceed the margin of error, suggests these evaluations are based on little more than statistical aberrations, or how the student felt that day. Since the test is not necessarily tied to what classes actually teach, there is no guarantee the results have any correlation whatsoever to teacher effectiveness.

One teacher told me a question she happened to see on a student’s screen (because, as is typical of all these “useful” standardized tests, teachers are never allowed to actually see them) asked how many milliliters were in a soda can. What does this question have to do with anything? This isn’t math. It’s trivia. Who looks at the can? Are students expected to have memorized the conversion between ounces and milliliters? In ninth grade?? Even I don’t know that one, and I know tons of conversions.

Third, how can we say that a student score on a test that does not affect their grade is indicative of the effectiveness of a teacher? Wouldn’t a better indicator be, say, the tests the teacher gives in their own class? Like, if I teach a unit on chemical reactions, and then I give a test about chemical reactions, it makes sense this test might be a reasonable way to determine if my students learned. And stuff.

But with standardized tests–almost all of them, not just the MAP–this simply isn’t the case. It would be like me teaching a unit on chemical reactions, and the standardized test asks students about the rock cycle.

Now some of you may think I’m exaggerating. Consider this:

The Story of the “Biology” EOC
At my high school each of the past few years, we’ve let about thirty sophomores skip biology and take chemistry instead.  So, this means they took physical science in ninth grade, chemistry in tenth, and then after that they mostly take AP biology, physics, or AP chemistry, or all three.

But, the state forces everyone to take the same tests. See, testing is all about conforming everyone to be the same, under the guise of “equality,” when really it’s about suppressing individuality and variation in talent and interest. So they force everyone to take a biology End of Course exam. And everyone has to take this exam in tenth grade. No exceptions.

So our thirty chemistry students, who’ve never taken biology in their life, are made to take a biology test. Sound ridiculous? Unfair? Think I’m exhaling in relief they don’t use this test to evaluate me?

Not at all.

Last year, 28 out of 33 of our chemistry sophomores passed the biology EOC. Yes, you read that right. Almost all of them passed a test for a course they’ve never taken.

What does this absurdity tell us?

It tells us, first and foremost, that this is not a biology test. Which brings me back to my point about the rock cycle. If I can teach a year of chemistry, and the students can pass a biology test, then you might as well make this test about anything you want. Clearly, it is not testing anything we actually do in school. How else could they pass it?

Teachers at my school half-jokingly (but only half...) refer to the EOC as a “reading test.” Because really, that’s what it is. Students who can read and have a fair ability to understand charts and tables will pass this test. But it is not a biology test.

In the same way, the MAP is not a math test or a language arts test. It is not tied to the content of the actual courses. Thus, it is not a valid assessment of the effectiveness of the teacher.

The Last Word
The best line of the protest expressed it this way: “You don’t fatten a pig by weighing it.” In other words, you don’t teach a student by testing her. The truth is, you test a student by teaching her. Learning is the test. The desire to learn tests character, desire, ambition, and motivation. The students who do the work and put the effort in have already passed the more important test, because they’ve accomplished something that will affect the rest of their lives.

And this is true no matter what a test score says.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Dan, you are completely right! My wife was a primary school teacher for 25 years and only retired asap because of a few discipline-challenged students each year. One of whom picked up a desk and threw it. Even the principal couldn't control him. It was bad for the whole rest of the class.

I am sure that you got some flack for your article but you deserve much credit for writing it.

Regards, Larry Hughes, SeaTac