Teachers, Test Scores, and Stand for Children’s Ballot Question

Stand's ballot question promises to "Promote Excellence in Public Schools" but instead will encourage more mind-numbing test prep than ever.

Your 2012 election ballot is being built right now.

Barack Obama vs ??? Scott Brown vs ??? And very likely, good teaching vs. more mind-numbing test prep.

The first two will feature strong personalities and national attention.
The third contest, not so much. But it could make a big difference to our kids.

It’s a ballot question about education reform—or rather, “reform.” The current hot “reform” is rating teachers by their students’ test scores. But leading academic experts on testing join most working educators in rejecting this because:

  • Standardized tests only measure a small part of what we want students to learn.
  • Scores may reflect incessant test prep rather than useful learning.
  • Teachers are not the biggest influence on student learning. Research shows home and society are.
  • Studies also prove that student test scores are only slightly better than a coin toss for distinguishing good teachers from bad.

But partly because of pressure to get federal dollars in the “Race To The Top,” Massachusetts adopted a new teacher evaluation system this year that does use student scores to rate teachers.

The final regulations, adopted in June, were not as rigid as educators feared. For example, it’s possible for a teacher to be rated “exemplary” even though he or she teaches students who don’t do well on tests. If student scores don’t “grow” enough, an evaluator is supposed to take a closer look, but may conclude that the teacher is providing excellent instruction and individualized support.

“Level 4” schools—those with consistently low test scores—are jumping right into the new teacher evaluations this school year. Another set of schools will start next year. All the rest are scheduled to begin in 2013-14.

A lot will depend on how the system is implemented. Maybe, in practice, test scores will dominate the ratings. Maybe they won’t. The regulations leave it up to school committees and teacher unions to work out the details, including how the evaluations will be used.

Not satisfied with that, the business-backed group Stand for Children filed an initiative petition whose main point is to take decisions out of local hands and write into state law that the new evaluations must trump seniority in deciding who gets laid off, transferred, promoted, or dismissed. That could boost the pressure on teachers to get those scores up.

The petition calls this “Promoting Excellence in Public Schools,” which sounds a lot better than “Promoting Even More Testing and Mind-Numbing Test Prep.” But the second is probably more accurate.

Stand for Children has hired a signature-gathering company for their petition and you may see their employees out on the street. In the past, fees have ranged from $1 to $4 per signature, with at least 66,593 signatures required for the ballot, but with the deep pockets of its corporate sponsors, Stand can afford it.

Stand for Children and its petition will be a very hot topic at our October conference.

(To read about Stand for Children’s transformation from a grass roots to an Astroturf organization, visit www.RethinkingSchools.org.)

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