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Sunday, June 2, 2013

When the Tail Wags the Dog

I'm a big believer in standards, assessment, and accountability. But you know what they say about too much of a good thing!

The tail is now wagging the dog.

Let's use fourth grade science in the state of Indiana as an example.
  • Indiana adopted new science standards a few years ago. At that time, our state was going through its science textbook adoption cycle. As expected, my school district purchased new books to go along with the new standards. That makes sense, right? We boned up on the new standards and planned instruction using our new textbooks. About half way through the next school year, I happened upon some startling information: the high-stakes state science tests (ISTEP) for 2011-2012 would reflect the old standards. What??? We quickly changed gears, got out our old curriculum, and started cramming. The tail was wagging the dog.
  • Next we verified that the 2012-2013 ISTEP tests would reflect the new standards. Yep. Whew! After another summer of planning, we were ready to hit the road running. Then we downloaded the new "Science Blueprint, " a document describing the content of the test in detail. Guess what? Half of the fourth grade ISTEP science test would cover third grade standards! We realized that we would need to teach all of the fourth grade material and review all of the third grade material before March, when the first of our two rounds of testing would occur. Nothing like teaching material a mile wide and an inch deep. The tail was wagging the dog.
  • Our state is also really into teacher assessment. Its new RISE evaluation system is state-of-the-art. It's a real humdinger! Very thorough. Since my grade takes ISTEP tests, much of my evaluation would rest upon my students' English Language Arts and Math test scores. In addition, I was required to set a goal to project how many of my students would pass the science portion of the ISTEP (on standards for two grade levels). But that really wasn't enough. I also had to identify which of my students fell into the high, average, and low ends of my class; create an additional assessment for my low students; project how many of the low students would pass the new assessment; and report that data. I spent hours and hours and hours working on my RISE evaluation. Those were hours that I could have been preparing for instruction. The tail was wagging the dog.
This set of examples illustrates how politics interfere with the learning process. Assessment has become more important than instruction. How can this be fixed?
  • Federal and state policy makers need to choose one set of clear, consistent standards and stick with them over time. This is not to say that these standards cannot be fine-tuned; however, constant replacement of standards (especially big changes that switch out entire sets of content) is disruptive to the educational process.
  • Federal and state testing need to address standards for that grade level. If tests fall before the end of the year or more than one test is given per year, policy makers must clearly communicate which standards to teach before each testing session.
  • Teacher evaluation needs to be concise. When teachers and administrators spend too much time assessing teaching, the quality of the teaching becomes compromised.
  • Finally, let's just use some common sense. What is the purpose of public education? Learning, of course!
Assessment is simply that which comes at the end of the learning cycle. Learning is the dog; assessment is the tail. Let's not let the tail wag the dog!