I experienced the usual mix of emotions that teachers feel at the end of the school year. I gave and received many hugs, exchanged summer book recommendations with kids, took pictures, got some nice notes and gifts.
As I said goodbye, I was able to reflect on how these students had changed — some for the better, some for the worse — as a result of all my lesson planning, my cajoling and counseling, my talking to their parents and all the other tasks that go into my job. But, according to the state of Florida, the development I see in my students does not reflect what kind of teacher I am. Instead, the state looks at the invisible number tattooed on each of those children’s foreheads by the FCAT, and this number is the final arbiter on whether or not I was a good teacher.
True, my classroom management, feedback and parent interaction are small pieces of my evaluation. But the largest piece by far — half of who I am as a teacher — is based on the test scores from a single morning. It’s absurd.
Lest you think this is sour grapes, I’ll tell you that my students did very well on the test. I’ll also tell you honestly that my teaching is just a small part of their performance.
These kids are at a wonderful small school, full of the arts. They have been given the opportunity every kid should to be in the kind of environment where children thrive. One by-product of the environment is that these kids do well on standardized tests. But this is an indicator that tells you little about what kind of teacher I’ve been, and should not be used to determine half my value. I’ve taught just as well at other schools and had remarkably different results.
Even within this school, some test scores don’t seem to correspond with what I actually saw in the classroom. My worst performing student, a kid who did absolutely no homework and very little classwork, not only passed the FCAT, but his scores went up from last year. I will get credit for teaching him well, even though he failed my class.
His counterpoint is a student who did all her assignments while continuing to improve her writing and analytical skills. While her FCAT rating remained the same as last year (a five, the highest possible), her actual numerical score went down. So, while the evaluation formula will reward me for the performance of my failing student, I’ll be punished for the diminished score of one of my stars.
There are also the outside factors ignored by these numbers. A friend of mine at another school had a student who lost a family member around the time of the FCAT. Another friend had a student who was suffering from insomnia during FCAT month, to the point that this otherwise A-student was sleeping through most of his classes. Are teachers responsible for the lower scores of these students?
And, there are the simple vagaries of the test. As I looked through the results, I saw that several of my most sophisticated thinkers and writers ended up with scores lower than mediocre students. It all raises serious questions about the design and scoring of the FCAT. Questions, unfortunately, that will never be answered.
The ultimate irony of the FCAT, which owes its very existence to the idea of accountability, is that the test questions and answers are never fully released. FCAT holds teachers accountable, but the test itself is accountable to no one.
The quality of the FCAT isn’t the main issue anyway. We’ll have another standardized test soon enough. The point is that no test is perfect, you’ll always end up with some seemingly capricious scores, and no test can be designed to capture the influence of one particular teacher.
That’s exactly why no exam, no single morning’s performance, should be given so much power to effect the lives and evaluations of students and teachers. Our current policy reflects the belief that we need such tests, the belief that we cannot trust the judgment of teachers to tell us whether or not our students are making progress, nor of our administrators to tell us whether teachers are succeeding or not.
Why, then, should we be trusted with your children?
Jeremy Glazer is a teacher in Miami-Dade County Public Schools and is starting a doctoral program in education at Stanford in the fall.