Changing how teachers make the grade

The Los Angeles Unified School Board voted unanimously Wednesday to reform teacher evaluations.

The district will now begin negotiating with members of the teachers’ and administrators’ unions.

All sides agree that the current method of grading teachers needs work, but controversy remains over how to measure something as complicated as good teaching.

“It would be very difficult to design a worse system than we have currently,” says Gabe Rose, the deputy director of a Los Angeles parents’ union. He said valuations are not based on fact.

“The current system uses data for zero percent of evaluation,” he said. “It completely ignores and throws out all the data that Los Angeles Unified School District collects.”

That data, called “value added,” measures how much students’ test scores improve over the year.

But the teachers’ union and other groups worry that such numbers do not tell the whole story.

David Tokofsky, a former teacher and board member who represents the administrators’ union, said the tests ignore all subjects except English and math. He also said the tests might miss other parts of teaching.

“The excitement aspect, you can’t measure that as smiles per minute, but you certainly can measure whether or not a child is feeling competent enough,” he said.

South Los Angeles parent Rob McGowan agreed.

“Just like parents don’t want to be seen in a negative light over one thing, or one aspect, of what’s happening with their kids out of context, I think the same holds true for teachers,” he said.

School district officials agree that testing should not be the only metric used. They said most of the debate going forward will be about how large a part those test scores should play.

“What you’re going to see is a discussion around how much weight does each of these multiple measures get, and how do you do the specific formulas,” said Drew Furedi, a policy expert for the district. “And I think that’s to be discussed.”

Furedi did not know how long those negotiations would take.

OPINION: Standardized tests provoke students to fail

imageBy John Hankey

Listen to the audio here:

I teach 10th grade at Manual Arts High School and I have a few things to say about test scores.

1. Most importantly, where does good teaching come from? Does it descend from heaven like the Holy Spirit upon the heads of the chosen? Are we born with it? Or does it get taught? This whole discussion is based on blaming the teacher for bad test scores, rather than blaming the students. OK. We blame those responsible for guiding the students to become good test takers. But who teaches the teachers? Why do we not blame those responsible for guiding teachers to become good teachers? The responsibility is primarily that of administrators and schools of education. And there’s not a word about this, that I’ve seen, in any discussion of the topic. How is such glaring oversight of such a fundamental point possible? It’s laughable that the Los Angeles Times holds itself in such high regard, and misses such a fundamental point [see the “Value-Added” database, which rates teachers by their students’ test scores]; and it’s depressing that the school district — whose administrators hold such highly burnished credentials and get paid two and three times what I get — is similarly clueless.

2. The tests are horribly and deliberately flawed — skewed to measure test-taking ability rather than, for example, reading ability. Tenth graders take not only the CST, but the CAHSEE, and four periodic assessments. I always take the test while I’m monitoring, so I have some familiarity. The CST is the worst, putting many of the hardest questions in the first three or four questions. And the test is also jam-packed with questions that have four good answers or four bad answers, out of four possible answers. I often do not know what answer is intended as “correct,” and I’m an exceptionally good test taker. Putting the hardest questions at the beginning is designed to provoke struggling students to give up. And filling the tests with questions, the answer to which is clearly arbitrary and meaningless, is designed to provoke the stiff-necked critical thinkers into rebellion.

My students witness every day the ugly truth that the society they live in holds them in the lowest regard, has the lowest expectations for them, and in fact is poised, waiting for them to screw up so that they can be locked away behind bars. They walk into a building called “Manual Arts” for goodness sake! Our mascot is “the Toiler”, a guy in a paper hat holding a sledge hammer, or a mop, or a bag of burgers. OMG! And where are they to find the motivation to apply themselves to a test that has obviously been carefully designed, and implemented at phenomenal expense, to demean them? Of course the smartest of them rebel.

The test is also much longer than it needs to be to test ability in English. It becomes an endurance test — a measure of students’ ability to knuckle under and perform a meaningless, boring, and ugly job “because I said so.” It does, then, measure the docility of the students more than anything. And of course, students from higher socio-economic backgrounds are more docile. They have every reason to be. Their educational experience has not been 10 years of empty promises and degradation.

It would be possible to design a better test. It should be done. It should contain a brief test to determine reading level. And another to determine math. And it should then leave the kids the hell alone and stop wasting everyone’s time.

3. Because of these deliberate design flaws, and perhaps other features, the CST is an insanely flawed testing instrument. One teacher writing to the Times described how one her honors students went up 40 points, and another went down 50. She asked how the same students in the same classroom could have such wildly varied responses. Ten years ago, I made the same analysis of my students (the Times are so proud of themselves! I did the same comparison they did to see how my students were doing) and saw this wild, inexplicable swing. I was crushed. Until I did the same examination of another teacher’s scores, one who I, and everyone, greatly admired for her intelligence, organization, and commitment. And I observed the same wildly crazy swings among her students. It’s par for the course. And it’s the wrong course.

John Hankey teaches 10th grade at Manual Arts High School.