"A child's learning is the function more of the characteristics of his classmates than those of the teacher." James Coleman, 1972

Sunday, March 04, 2012

Teacher, Julie Cavanagh, on Test Scores

From the NYDaily News
According to the numbers, I am a highly effective New York City public school teacher. But you won’t see me jumping for joy over the news.

My teacher data report, along with those of 18,000 other teachers, was released last week by the Education Department after a lengthy legal battle. That report says I have a career rating that falls at or above the 95th percentile in both English and math (as measured through a complex formula that takes into account the gains my students made on standardized tests, compared with gains made by students in similar classrooms across the city).

In fact, plenty of teachers in my school also have average-to-high ratings. Every year, however, when test scores are released, we do not celebrate; instead, we exhale and then get back to the real work of teaching.

I imagine this attitude is shared by educators across the city, whether they are in the 90th percentile or the ninth.
Since the reports were released last week, the debate has been raging about whether a formula prone to as much as 53% in margin of error is the best way to judge the effectiveness of teachers. Self-proclaimed reformers say yes; those who understand teaching say otherwise.

There is no question that teachers are responsible for the learning and growth that take place inside of their classrooms. However, standardized tests are just not a reliable measure of learning. If we are truly interested in increasing the quality of education, the conversation surrounding accountability must shift.

Imagine if doctors were held accountable based on the death rate of their patients, regardless of environmental factors and whether prescribed treatment was followed.

Imagine if firefighters were held accountable based on fire injuries and deaths, even though they didn’t start the fires, their budgets had been cut and most of the homes in their district didn’t have fire alarms.

That would be unreasonable. So why do we only apply this impossible standard to teachers?

No standardized test score can quantify what we do. In fact, we succeed in spite of — not because of — the testing culture that has pervaded our classrooms since Mayor Bloomberg took office.

Students are not created the same, even though the DOE seems to believe we can compare their teachers as if the classroom were nothing more than a repository of numerical data to be finessed and analyzed.

I know countless teachers whose ratings were not as favorable as mine and my colleagues’. These teachers are no less successful with their students. In fact, many of these teachers serve children who actually outperform the children I serve. But because they didn’t show as much progress, their teacher’s “value” is lower.

In other cases, teachers serve children with more significant needs. For example, children who need English-language instruction or special education — as well as students who fall below the poverty line. All these factors impact the validity of test scores.

In a democracy, our elected leaders are supposed to be responsive to the people they serve. As a teacher, I apply this same democratic principle to my work. And so the parents I serve know I am a good teacher not because of their child’s test score, but because they come to our classroom, see their child’s work and hear my estimation of that child’s growth.

No formula can measure the value of the relationships at the heart of good teaching.

Regardless, some will continue to argue that there is a correlation between test scores and teacher effectiveness. But correlation does not equal causation.

We could be allocating the millions spent on testing on what research shows are actual causes of positively impacting student achievement: small classes and experienced educators. That’s what our children truly need.
Cavanagh teaches special education at PS 15 in Red Hook, Brooklyn.

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