18 May 2011

Most Improved is, Apparently, Not Good Enough Anymore

Christine Ruffalo, an ESL teacher in Austin, recently wrote an opinion piece for the Austin American-Stateman in which she argues against the standardized assessment of public school students.  She stresses progress over a standard pass-fail assessment of the TAKS test.  While reading it, I had a few thoughts:

  • I want to agree with Ruffalo because I don't agree with large-scale standarized testing, but I just cannot bring myself to accept her argument.  The argument against TAKS can (and should) be made, but this is not the way to make it.  Her example of two students, Erik and Bobby is revealing.  Erik comes into 8th grade with a 10th grade reading level and makes no progress during the academic year, but "passes" the TAKS, which tests him on 8th-grade skill sets.  Bobby comes into 8th grade with a 4th grade reading level, but makes huge strides and ends the year reading just over a 6th grade level.  But he "fails" the TAKS because he still cannot read at an 8th-grade level.  I can understand why Bobby would be discouraged by this, but the fact remains that he had not met the minimum requirements to succeed in 8th grade.  I do understand Ruffalo's motivation, but I do not understand the concept of destroying or disregarding developmental milestones because Bobby worked hard and finally got moving in the right direction.  The real solution seems to be a non-age-based assessment program--in which Erik would be working at a 10th-grade level no matter his age and Bobby would be working at a 6th-grade level no matter his age (but that brings along with it its own set of problems).  In my own teaching, I've begun to stress accomplishment: I do not care whether a student "gets" argumentative college writing in Week 2 or Week 9 as long as the student gets it.  Two years out, it won't matter how quickly the student understood things during the term; it matters that she understood things by the time she left the classroom for the last time.
  • It is also true that such progress as Bobby made deserves its own kind of recognition.  (It's the "Most Improved" award that they used to use when I was in school.)  Trying hard and making great progress, however, doesn't mean you should get a trophy based on achievement.  I could train very hard and make great strides in my football skills, but it does not follow that I should get to play defensive end for the Ducks next year.  There is a minimum standard to be met to make the team, and I am not (and probably would never be) there.
  • Such a philosophy demands one thing that is not now present in education: repeating a grade shouldn't have the stigma attached to it that it currently carries.  Again, it shouldn't matter how many attempts a student needs to meet achievement milestones: it matters that he meets them.  As long as students like Bobby continue to improve, they are more interesting and inspiring than Erik--and they deserve any sort of support we can offer to continue that progress.  Saying that Bobby and Erik are equally important in the education system, however, is not the same thing as saying that Bobby and Erik are equally advanced.  It may well be that Bobby is actually more intelligent than is Erik, but TAKS and the like are not IQ tests.  They are tests of knowledge that the State of Texas has deemed crucial for 8th-graders.  Failing it does not mean that the student or teacher are failures.
  • And here is where I agree with Ruffalo.  If we attach funding to the success rates of TAKS tests, then we are doing Bobby and ourselves a disservice.  Bobby's progress may not have been enough to get him to the 9th grade, but it is certainly enough to warrant sustained (if not increased) funding to that school for that student.  To reiterate: Bobby's 4th-grade to 6th-grade reading skills progress should not factor into placement for the next academic year, but it should factor into funding concerns.  If we are looking for results, the that sort of progress is the kind of result we should encourage in our students and our teacher; it does not, however, mean that Bobby gets a pat on the back and a promotion to the next grade (a promotion that would do more harm than good since it would place an under-prepared student in a more advanced context).  As long as the students--the gifted, the average, the remedial--keep moving toward that final assessment goal (the exit-level TAKS) the dollars should flow.  It's when the majority of students--in a particular class, school, or district--don't make yearly progress that a hard, analytical eye should be trained on the students and teachers.