What I’m about to say might make me the most unpopular teacher in the lounge.
Standardized testing actually isn’t all that bad. In fact, if used correctly, it can do some great stuff.
Sorry, I just had to duck as a head of lettuce was thrown my way.
I teach adults English as a Second Language (ESL) in the Los Angeles Unified School District. Our students take two or three tests during a semester, and if their scores improve, we get money from the state.
At first, like many teachers, I hated these tests. Then, I got a job as my school’s testing advisor. For nine years, I assisted teachers with the testing, trained them to do it more effectively, scanned all the test results into a giant database, collected a bunch of demographic information, and then sent off the final report to the school district’s main office. From there, it went on to some shadowy place in the government, and somehow this all resulted in a check for some books we might buy.
The thing that bothered me was that all that work never truly resulted in helping struggling teachers or improving our programs. We made some cursory attempts at improvement, but the focus was on the money we earned from performance, not the evaluative process itself. We improved in order to get more funding. We didn’t truly examine core issues.
There was a widespread distrust of the tests among teachers and administrators. In my experience, teachers tend to be, oddly enough, people who distrust authority. We look at ourselves as overworked heroes, and we see standardized tests as the instruments that don’t truly measure the value of our work. But the thing is, the tests did measure a few things that we should have examined more closely.
I had never been much of a computer geek, but I had a knack for this bean counting database job. So I got pretty familiar with the reporting we did, and year after year, the numbers painted a clear picture. Some teachers were getting more improvements than others. Yes, there were outliers and exceptions and individual situations that affected testing. But if you took a step back and looked at trends, you could see which teachers were more effective — at least at the subjects our tests covered.
Moreover, unlike K-12 programs, adult education is not compulsory. Students who don’t enjoy your class can just walk out. They “vote with their feet.” The data showed us which teachers had high retention and which teachers had high drop rates. In other words, we could see who was engaging students and who might be a little, um…boring.
This isn’t to say that a boring teacher is a bad teacher, or that a fun teacher is necessarily a great teacher. But if I could see great retention and consistent test score improvements, term after term, I knew a teacher was pretty right on. At least, this was a teacher we could all learn a bit from.
One criticism that gets lobbed against standardized testing is that it can be used against instructors. But what about the opposite situation, when it can be used in their favor? There was a younger teacher in our school who just amazed me with his stellar test results. He dressed flamboyantly and danced and sang in his classroom. His learner persistence was great, too. Students loved him, because he was fun and he enjoyed the hell out of his job.
He was denied tenure. An administrator simply didn’t like his style. She was a more conservative, buttoned-down type, and she thought he was too silly, too wild. She overlooked the empirical evidence of his great results. Why aren’t we using these kinds of measurements to reward teachers like him or learn to emulate them? (He finally did get tenure.)
There was a lot of useful information that could have helped us improve our teaching. But we didn’t make enough use of that information. No teachers were dismissed for being uninteresting, but sadly, no teachers were trained to be more interesting, either.
In many ways, the cynicism of the staff toward the tests was understandable. The whole testing system was pretty flawed (and still is). And over the years, the pressure to do well on these tests mounted as our other funding was cut. So of course, when people don’t believe something has value, but they are forced to do it to earn money, a predictable result occurs. Teachers started to manipulate the test results.
One day, I was looking at a set of tests, and I noticed some strange patterns in the data. Students were scoring very high at the end of the semester, but then their scores would plummet at the beginning of the next semester. After narrowing this activity down to one class, I realized this teacher was cheating. He was depressing scores at the beginning of the term in order to see bigger results at the end of the term.
Oddly enough, he actually walked into my office right as I was making this discovery. And he proudly told me how he’d been getting such great test results: He’d been giving his students 10 minutes on the first test and an hour on the second. And bam! Improvement points.
I explained to this teacher, and a few others, that we couldn’t play the game like that. And my pitch basically went something like this: “Look, in the most basic sense, teachers should not be the ones trying to cheat on tests. But if that call to honesty doesn’t convince you, just know that your cheating is transparent, and if I can see it, you’ll get caught by someone less nice, who might fire you.”
I cleaned up that sort of behavior at our school, but I was aware that it was happening at other schools. I told some people who maybe could have done something about it. Not much happened.
At first, my school always did well, and I was considered competent. But year by year, we fell behind. Every year, when we didn’t meet our targets, I had to go do a sort of confessional with my supervisor in the district office. I had to examine the error of my ways and make a plan of improvement. There was no question that my job was riding on that improvement.
Just when I thought I’d have to capitulate or lose my job, the cheating at the other schools was discovered, the people involved were disciplined, and I was vindicated. Our school came out smelling clean and fresh and non-cheaty. I wish I could say this was a victory, but funding for our entire program was cut so drastically (because of a little economic crash that happened back in 2008) that hundreds of teachers lost their jobs anyway. Since layoffs were based on seniority, I’m sure a lot of teachers who did well on the tests were let go.
It’s hard to be a teacher. I’m back in the classroom now, and I’m giving these tests once again to my students. At the beginning of the semester, I didn’t even have my textbooks yet. I teach a group of adult students who are among the most economically challenged in the nation, and they show up to class exhausted from working full days, cleaning houses, painting, working at fast food restaurants, or taking care of kids or elderly people for low wages. These tests take up my time, cause me to exercise organizational muscles that I don’t have, and put stress on me. And there’s the rest of my life, too, where I’m not planning lessons but trying to write articles or parent a kid.
Yeah, the tests are a pain in the butt. And of course, the test results aren’t the only measure of a teacher’s worth.
But I know from sifting through data that the tests show us useful information, if only we would use it — and of course, if we are honestly taking the tests and not gaming the system. I don’t have a problem with the tests being financially compensated, but when you make educators desperate to earn money because regular funds are so scarce, that’s bound to incentivize dishonesty.
If we had better working conditions to start with, we might have time to read the story of what we do in test measurements, without the pressure of counting on the results for our survival.
Julie Cross is a screenwriter and graduate of UCLA Film School.