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When Your State Reduces Your Profession to a Test Score

By Dave Stuart Jr.

A while back, I wrote “The 300-Word Guide to Long-Term Flourishing,” and it elicited a heartfelt response about test scores and teacher evaluations from a passionate educator whom I’ll call D in this post. Her comment follows:

Thank you for defining this concept so clearly! It is difficult to “refuse to freak out about high-stakes tests; use them for what they are worth, but don’t tie your identity to their results” when the state in which I teach ties test results to teacher performance. In NY, a teacher gets a growth score based on the grade 3-8 ELA and Math tests. If the teacher receives an ineffective or developing growth score, even if every other part of the teacher’s APPR scores are highly effective, the teacher is rated as ineffective. If this occurs for two years in a row, the teacher must defend his or her job. Three years in a row and the teacher is fired.

This means that one test that means absolutely nothing to a student’s average or ability to move on to the next grade level means everything to a teacher’s identity as a teacher. I know I’m a great teacher, but there are circumstances beyond my control concerning the tests. Last year, several students decided to opt out. Others saw that happen and part way through the test decided they wanted to opt out too, but they still got a score because they started the test. Students were just filling in bubbles and refusing to write essay responses because the tests didn’t mean anything for their scores.

I know my growth score will be low even though every other part of my APPR will be highly effective. I’m definitely freaking out because I love my job and don’t want to lose it, and I don’t want parents to see my results and APPR score and think I’m a failure. Until the state stops ranking schools based on the scores and stops tying teacher performance to a flawed test, I will be freaking out! (The flawed tests are a whole other post!)

Before I move on, let me suggest that what’s worth focusing on here isn’t the particular state or scoring system, but rather the effects of the system on this particular educator. I would argue that this particular teacher’s situation is being experienced in various shades and systems across the United States. That’s why I think it’s worth today’s article.

My response

(You can see my original response to D here; below is an extended, edited version.)

D, thank you so much for your heartfelt response. Here is my opinion, and keep in mind that it does not come lightly. I need my job; I am the wage-earner in a single-income household. And even though writing and speaking now provides my family additional sources of income, the following opinion predates these things in my life. Here it is: if I am teaching my heart out, growing each year, and earnestly working toward the long-term flourishing of my students, then I will refuse to allow any person in power to cause me to lose sleep at night with a flawed or — what in your case sounds like — insane policy.

In short, a system that would fire me for being a great teacher who happened to have students opt out or make bubble patterns on Testing Days is a system that will inevitably destroy itself. That breaks my heart primarily for the kids and communities involved. And it infuriates my heart because hard-working, earnest, problem-solving teachers like you and me will inevitably leave such systems, which is needless. I can’t imagine it really coming to this, but if it does for you and if it ever does in my town, then it will be time for me to move. And this would be a shameful waste of human energy — why make good teachers move to towns, states, or countries that can see the coming iceberg for what it is and have the foresight to steer clear? What a shameful, wasteful tragedy.

Post Image- Teaching Reduced to a NumberBut here’s how I see it: if I’m an average person, I get to live 70-some years. That is not a long time. It is a time too precious for allowing some external entity to take a single one and drain it of joy. I may not have the power to affect policy, but I do have power to protect my internal life from that policy’s pernicious effects. If Viktor Frankl could find meaning in his circumstances, surely there is a way for you and me.

D, dare them, with your daily excellence alone, to terminate you for doing everything but magically, omnipotently goading your students into filling in the bubbles to the best of their ability. Dare the people who visit your classroom and speak with your students and hear from your students’ parents — who, in short, know your true quality as an educator — to determine your worth based solely on some algorithmic output. If you lose your job in this way or are judged poorly in this manner, it says nothing about you and everything about the system that fires you and the hearts who judge you.

And D, take heart, because this will not last forever. There is a restoring force with every pendulum, and so too with education policy. What we’ll care about in twenty years is whether we worked hard and cultivated joy in the midst of these times.

Yours,

Dave

Closing thoughts

No educator would say that student achievement doesn’t matter. Long-term flourishing for our kids is what we work for.

I don’t know the specifics of D’s state’s policies but I know that, nationwide, we’ve enacted policies and developed public attitudes that are driving great teaching into the underground and chasing prospective teachers away. I don’t know how to change that; I don’t know how to most effectively fight systems that demoralize students, parents, and teachers; I don’t know how to make sense of situations like Rafe Esquith’s right now, where the best teachers of our generation can be fired on fuzzy charges.

All I can see to do is keep teaching, keep wrestling with connecting the dots between my kids today and their flourishing in twenty years, keep working toward improving my craft, keep a long-term lens on the work, and keep encouraging one another. And keep reminding you, dear reader, that no matter the times we live in, teaching is still and always will be a noble calling.

I hope this post helps. It’s a bit of a risk, and I apologize if it offends.

Thank you to D for leaving the comment that prompted this post.

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13 Responses to When Your State Reduces Your Profession to a Test Score

  1. Connie Anderson November 10, 2015 at 10:03 am #

    Thanks Dave for your honest statements and inspiration. We must always be accountable in our work, but the insanity of firing a teacher just because of growth score results is so out of touch with what kids need. Why is it that no one ever mentions the overwhelming influence of a child’s first teacher? Parents who don’t lead by the examples of love, integrity, discipline, responsibility, a hard work ethic, honesty, respect, and fairness should be the first ones to be held accountable!

  2. Gerard November 10, 2015 at 11:56 am #

    I appreciate the element of Stoicism here, Dave. Reminds me of the quote from Marcus Aurelius in his Meditations:

    Say to yourself in the early morning: I shall meet today ungrateful, violent, treacherous, envious, uncharitable men. All of the ignorance of real good and ill… I can neither be harmed by any of them, for no man will involve me in wrong, nor can I be angry with my kinsman or hate him; for we have come into the world to work together…

    Like you mention, it’s important to constantly consider what is in and out of our own control and do our best to regulate our actions and reactions accordingly.

    Great article and compassionate response to that reader’s email.

  3. Amy November 10, 2015 at 12:36 pm #

    In my very busy day I am routinely taking the time to read this blog, and increasingly in its entirety. Thank you for sharing both of the responses. Reading the quality of these responses provides me with much needed and appreciated inspiration. I crave the daily mental massage, that can go missing when we become myopic in the trenches.

  4. James November 10, 2015 at 12:41 pm #

    Hi Dave, thank you for work. This blog not only inspires me through great content, but also the community lets me know that I’m not alone and am part of a large group of teachers who are working towards a better future for our world.

    In this article, after you mentioned Frankl I followed my curiosity to this article:

    http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/questionofgod/voices/frankl.html

    In response to the many systemic problems in education right now, I think one thing Frankl might say to us is that these are real problems we face, it is real suffering, but their primary purpose is to give us a chance to live out our choice and free will to CHOOSE our attitude. To practice our responsibility, because we are ABLE to RESPOND with gratitude, with grit, with zest. These backwards policies that are in vogue right now give us an opportunity to grow in practicing what we preach, in aligning our choices with what we daily encourage our students to grow in. Will we be conformed by these adverse conditions, or will we practice our freedom? What a challenge when I think of other areas of my life like the last 15 years of chronic back pain.

    • ML November 11, 2015 at 9:23 am #

      You inspire me too! Thank you for your words of wisdom.

  5. Ron November 10, 2015 at 12:55 pm #

    Thank goodness I have only one year left until retirement. Folks like me with 40 years of classroom experience are a rarity indeed. With all these changes sucking time away from us in the name of data, teaching has devolved from a qualitative experience of stories about our students, lessons, successes, and failures into a corporate-driven business model

    • Ana November 14, 2015 at 12:48 pm #

      I hear you! In my district, I have to test oral reading 4 times a year. After they finish reading the book I have to orally ask them 5 questions. Orally! Even if they are sixth graders and they can go back and look at text. I spend so much time testing that students’ learning is being affected. I either test or teach. I can’t do both!

  6. Diane November 10, 2015 at 4:09 pm #

    From the late education philosopher, Maxine Greene, “A teacher in search of his/her own freedom may be the only kind of teacher who can arouse young persons to go in search of their own.”

  7. Phil Nienhuis November 10, 2015 at 7:59 pm #

    I’m a counselor, not an educator, who loves to work with high school students. Teacher “D” makes mention of another problem with all this testing: The students see no value in it and thus ends up hurting the teachers. Occasionally a student asks me the rhetorical question,”Why should I work hard in school when I’m told I need to do good so the school will look good?” Competent teachers are discouraged and fearful, and their students are disengaged from their learning. What don’t politicians understand?

  8. ML November 11, 2015 at 9:06 am #

    Just what I and my coworkera need to hear. You are a blessing!

  9. Susan November 11, 2015 at 11:37 am #

    Dave, preaching to the choir is different from engaging the politicians responsible for state laws (and in our state’s case, PED rules) that base teacher effectiveness on test score data. Please take your message to the Dept. of Education in the states that use VAM to rate teacher effectiveness. They’ll tell you that you’re avoiding accountability, you’re unprofessional, you’re not acting in the best interests of the children. I know because that’s what my state PED is telling us every time we do battle against their education reform policies that place excessive value on student test score data. We’ve been to court, we’ve lobbied, we’ve invited our Secretary of Education into a public debate. We’ve also sacrificed time that would have been spent in meaningful conversations with students for placing exemplars and rubrics onto the classroom walls where few, if any, student eyes ever drift. We’ve spent time in redundant teacher PD sessions “doing a close reading” of a rubric for teacher effectiveness to meet district compliance mandates that could have been spent developing engaging lessons, as if. We’ve compromised for the sake of data-driven decision making, measured the opportunity costs of standardized interim and summative assessment (up to 13 standardized tests each year), and decided the just course of action is to defy the system. For that reason, many of us will be ushered out of the teaching profession within the next three years. My state is well on its way to providing on-line courses in our stead.

    • davestuartjr November 16, 2015 at 9:51 pm #

      Susan, you give a compelling argument for why my time is best spent preaching to the choir versus engaging politicians. I don’t know the work of a politician, but I know the work of a teacher. The choir needs preaching, too. 🙂

  10. Brendan Johnson December 10, 2015 at 12:07 am #

    I believe the pendulum swing hits the nail on the head. Teaching is indeed noble and for those teachers who stay in the profession long enough see through what’s real and what’s a short-term strategy, policy, or whim. I’ve been in the business of teaching for almost 20 years and for some time worked for a district that practiced a chain-smoking approach. One thing after another picked up and then dropped for another ‘new’ innovative method or technique. With that said, I’ve also experienced what some say are the bureaucratic practices of everyday life: taxes, standing in line for a drivers license, jumping through hoops to fulfill paperwork requirements on the journey of attaining my bachelor’s and master’s degree. All of these tasks take a certain degree of grit. I believe the Common Core is a solid set of standards that support students in graduating College and Career Ready. The testing implementation process is the challenge- one I hope ends up in a healthy balance, eventually. For now, the pendulum is swinging. I’ll wager on the side of glass half full…recently, I renewed my driver’s license in under five minutes.

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