Test-based Accountability and its Impact on Teachers and Students

24 Nov

Following is a summary of a talk I delivered at Education on Tap, an event hosted by the League of Women Voters of Alachua County and Alachua County Council of PTA’s on November 24.

I’d like to start with telling you my story, and how I became an education advocate.

I grew up in Alachua County; attended Hawthorne High School and the University of Florida.

I’m not a teacher. While in high school, a lot of people thought I was going to be a teacher – probably because my parents were teachers. But, I knew even at a young age that I didn’t have the patience to be a teacher. So, I did the next best thing – I married a teacher!

My graduate school studies brought me to the Tampa area, which is where I met my husband, a former teacher of 22 years. Like most teachers, it wasn’t just a job for him. It was his passion. He loved his job, and he was really good at it. He was a music teacher. He once told me that loves music, and he wanted to share it with others. And, teaching is a great way to do that.

It was around 10 years ago that I noticed that the love he had for his job started to slowly dissipate.  When I asked him about it, I learned that there were decisions being made at the state level that made it harder to teach, and had a negative impact on our schools.

This bothered me, so I started doing research. I talked to other teachers, met with legislators and other decision-makers, and talked with other parents. I learned that the situation wasn’t unique to my husband or to that county. Teachers in other areas across the state were all saying the same thing.

When my children started school a few years later, I realized that these things happening in our state were not only impacting our teachers, they were impacting our children as well. This was when I started getting involved in PTA, and learned that they were noticing these things and fighting them as well.

Three years ago, my husband made the difficult decision to leave the teaching profession, which is what brought us back to Alachua County. It was here that I got involved in our county council PTA, who does a lot of great advocacy work at the county and state level. I’m currently serving as Legislative Chair for that group.

So, what is it that’s causing all of this angst among our teachers and our children?

It’s accountability.

Accountability is important. We all want our schools, teachers, parents and children to be held accountable. We want our kids to learn in an environment that’s focused on results. But, here in Florida, we don’t just have accountability. To use Sue Legg’s term – we have “accountability on steriods.”

Arthus Costa, Emeritus Professor at California State University, once said: “What was educationally significant and hard to measure has been replaced by what is educationally insignificant and easy to measure.”

In our state, we have a hyper-focus and narrow definition of accountability that focuses on what’s easy to measure. But, what’s easy to measure isn’t always what ultimately matters in education.

The largest component of our state accountability system is the Florida Standards Assessment, or FSA, which our children take beginning in third grade all the way through high school. They also take district-created tests that are mandated by the state in lower grades. There are a few ways the FSA is used for accountability:

  • School grades – Every school receives a grade, on an A – F scale. At the elementary school level, grades are based 100% on scores from standardized tests. In middle and high school there are other components such as dual-enrollment or advanced placement courses, but 75% of the school grades are still based on tests. The stakes for school grades are very high. Schools could be closed if they receive a low grade for many years. My high school was on the verge of closing years ago, and I can tell you that it would have devastated that community. Some parents even decide where to purchase a home based on school grades.
  • Teacher evaluations – State law requires that 30% of a teacher’s evaluation be based on student progression (i.e. test scores). Teachers could be transferred to another school because of their evaluation (which has happened in our county), or they could conceivably lose their jobs.
  • Students are also directly impacted by testing, as they could be retained or fail a course based on test scores.

So, why is this wrong?

For one, the FSA measures one single point in time. It doesn’t tell us everything that took place during the 180 days within the school year. It also doesn’t evaluate the whole child, or take into account social issues, family issues, or other things that impact test scores that are beyond the control of the teacher or the school. Tests take up a tremendous amount of classroom time –  both on the actual tests as well as test prep, because test-taking skills can impact test scores. 8-year olds will sit for 90 minutes at a time for each FSA test that they will take this year (and they take more than one). Not only that, but the validity of the actual test has been questioned by experts across the state. We are making all of these high stakes decisions based on a test that may not be valid.

This is one of the reasons for the mass exodus of teachers from the profession. The test-focused teaching and learning environment continues to impact teaching in a way that is driving teachers away.

We all want accountability. We just want it done in a way that makes sense and doesn’t drive high quality teachers from the profession or dismantle communities.

I want to end on a positive note, so I will close by saying that I’m a public school parent. My kids wouldn’t be in public schools if they weren’t learning, and if I didn’t think it was the best place for them. The reason our public schools are good is because of the teachers who persist, day in and day out, in spite of (not because of) the accountability system.

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