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Students: the Achilles heel of test-based teacher evaluation?

Susan Notes: This story needs no comment. Celebrate these 8th graders. One can only wish the teachers unions and professional organizations might learn from them.

Kudos to their teacher for publicly acknowledging that what they did is a step in the right direction.

By Valerie Strauss

Paul Hafemann, a 7th/8th Grade social studies teacher at Mahopac Middle School in Mahopac, NY, sent me an email with the following story, or, rather, lesson about standardized tests. It points to a a major, and little discussed, issue about the push to evaluate, pay and retain teachers based on the standardized test scores of their students. Hafemann gave me permission to share it.

From Paul Hafemann:

We have read about all of the "cheating scandals" across our nation and how the tests need to be made more "secure." I want to take a moment of your time and tell you about a lesson that a handful of students taught me two years ago and it is a lesson that I believe can absolutely destroy the push toward using student standardized test scores to evaluate schools and individual educators because it shows that the test can never be truly "secure."

The amazing thing is that through the understanding of a key lesson from my class on Prohibition Era America, modern communication devices, and #2 pencils, a handful of 8th graders showed me that a multi-billion dollar industry has a glaring Achilles Heel that adults, including myself, have ignored.

Prior to this past year New York State gave an annual 8th grade social studies assessment. The assessment ran for two days: day one was a multiple choice and structured responses and day two was a "document based question."

Day one went by as usual and students answered questions on a test about American History that truly only covered a fraction of content knowledge and skills of my students. Day two was very different from the previous day. The test was the same in that it once again only covered a fraction of content knowledge and skills of my students. What was different was how a number of students responded to the test and how they viewed it.

Several students realized that the test did not "count" because the school district does not allow us to use the state assessments for grades 3 - 8 as any part of the grade they earn for the course. Several of my students and several others on other teams decided that instead of writing about the assigned topic they would write about squirrels. They wrote about brown squirrels, red squirrels, flying squirrels and more.

Needless to say they earned zero points on the second day of the test. Imagine if my job evaluation was based upon these results at the time and it could have cost me my job if enough students had become involved in the group and had done the same thing.

We finally discovered what they had done when all of the 7th and 8th grade social studies teachers were convened to grade the assessments. in the end about eight or nine students had written essays on squirrels.

Upon returning to the classroom after several days of grading I spoke to one of my students about his essay on squirrels. Tyler was a C student who could not remember what he had for breakfast some days, but he sure did remember a lesson from Prohibition America: How does one enforce an unpopular law if enough people break that unpopular law?

On the way to school for day two of the social studies assessment, Tyler texted his friends with his squirrel plan. These students demonstrated that by simply ignoring the assigned question they had rendered the whole test to be invalid in their case.

Imagine what would happen if several hundred students had become involved. Imagine what would happen if students in an entire grade, school, district, or even a state were to do this.

What we would have is a meaningless system that cost billions of dollars and decades to create being taken down by the very students it is designed to assess.

I believe we would be taking a big step in the right direction.

— Paul Hafemann
Washington Post Answer Sheet



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