This essay was first published in Newsday. Stories of silly test-taking are filling the halls of the public high school and middle school that my daughters attend. This fall, our school district is testing kids on topics they haven't learned yet.
Teachers are placing geometry and chemistry questions in front of students who haven't ever studied the subjects. Kids new to Spanish class are being asked to leer y escribir.
What's the point? To measure student growth in this new age of evaluating teachers, apparently one must test kids at the beginning of the school year, and then again once they've finished the class. The difference in scores will show the growth students have achieved.
Generally, I love our school district, but this is a disheartening approach. Kids are joking about filling in the little ovals in a Christmas tree shape, or choosing all "B" answers. One foreign-language teacher told the class she wouldn't be unhappy if they bombed on this initial test - it will make her and the students look that much better in the spring.
Such a cynical approach is bad for students. Tests ought to be sophisticated enough to measure growth from one year to the next without presenting kids with impossible questions. Teachers should take a more sober stance toward teacher evaluation, and work with administrators to create a serious system to weed out the bad teachers, assist the struggling and honor the good. Teachers have everything to gain by elevating their craft's status in the public eye as a professional calling.
My opinion isn't teacher-bashing, it's teacher self-interest. When underperformers keep their jobs, other teachers have to do remedial work with students the following year.
Standards elevate. At times, there has been talk about creating professional certification for journalists, with an ethics board to kick out the miscreants. That might hoist our approval ratings out of the trough. But journalism's denizens haven't been able to decide on the terms of evaluation. Sound familiar?
I wonder if other school districts have found a better approach to the state Education Department's directive to create a teacher evaluation system. Districts are supposed to base 40 percent of a teacher's grade on test scores - 20 percent on student results on standardized state tests, and 20 percent on tests created by the district. The remaining 60 percent will be based on administrators' observations.
What could go wrong? Well, a lot. Say an administrator dislikes a teacher for personal reasons, or has cause to favor another. This is all the more reason for teachers to engage in how the evaluation process is written, and what results it produces in these early years.
My kids' district, by giving them tests they can't hope to do well on, is reinforcing suspicion of authority: The administration is making us do it this ridiculous way. But imagine if all the adults in school seemed to be cooperating in their quest to educate. Wouldn't that send a healthier signal to students? We would be telling them that the people who are in charge of their world agree on what's good.
I saw an inkling of this on meet-the-teacher night in the gym class. In both the middle and high schools, gym teachers explained that they are working fitness into the curriculum - teaching kids about staying strong and lean, instead of just instructing them on the rules of the game. The idea made sense, and if the gym teachers resented this change, it didn't show.
It's going to take time to work out the bugs in this new, national effort to grade teachers. For the sake of the good and dedicated ones, teachers should be engaged and insist on wielding their own marking pens.