Standards, Assessment, Evaluation: Now Is the Time for a Thank You
Evaluation used to measure performance against a standard isn't, in and of itself, a bad thing. It can present a picture of how someone, or a group, makes progress toward a stated target, over time. It is a form of accountability. Standardized tests are one way we evaluate students, and now teachers. The end of the school year is the accountability season.
In states where the scores the students receive on standardized tests contribute to the evaluation of the teacher, it is natural for concern to heighten. What if the students had a bad day? What if a particular group of students are poor test takers? What impact is there on the test environment and results if parents speak out about their concern and even express their disrespect toward the tests? What if the tests themselves were poorly constructed, had mistakes in them, and failed to measure what was taught and learned?
These questions raise real concerns for educators. Students may be required to receive support interventions based upon their lower than desired results. Teachers may be considered in need of further development based upon the results of these tests. The standardized assessments hold a heavy hammer that causes angst among students, their parents, and their teachers.
When leaders and the faculty look at end of year standardized test results for the purpose of evaluating a teacher, an often stated and sensible response to a set of low scores follows. It might be, "this group was not as high functioning as students in years past." That may be a fair assessment of the group, but somehow it has given permission to all of us to dismiss the results. This is what has changed.
In places where standardized tests are given over the course of several years, there is another way to look at those results...a student's scores over time. No matter where these students began, did they grow over time, including the year in which they didn't score well? Is the score, albeit low, indicative of growth from the year before?
There are question about whether the tests are aligned, truly valid and reliable, and able to adequately measure growth over time. It seems hardly possible, with the recent changes that have happened so quickly, that the tests can measure the new Common Core Standards without error. So on a policy level, there is the question about placing such a high stakes value on a new and developing process. Why hold students and teachers accountable for a new set of standards and a new set of assessments all at the same time?
Although the results of the current year's standardized tests are not in yet, the bulk of the teachers' performance evaluations will be written up and presented before the year ends. In the best of circumstances, a supervisor will sit with the teacher and have a conversation about this assessment of his or her work. With the end of year responsibilities building, and the list of teachers' evaluations to complete, including meetings, it is without a doubt, a huge challenge and a massive item commitment. Sometimes it can feel more like a task than a calling.
No matter the mandate, the attitude with which it is delivered and received can make all the difference. This is not to say that we should not speak out against things with which we have professional disagreement. That most certainly has its place in our work. But, the manner in which this standardized test and evaluation process takes place, the way it feels within our buildings and communities, is in the hands of the leaders and the teachers of any building.
The tension between being loyal to the school and being loyal to our own beliefs has grown more difficult to hold. Schools are engaged in answering the demand for change while trying to preserve their successful pasts. The push for change is fueled by an awareness that it is time to move beyond the old structure, maintain what remains as valued and design a new paradigm for schools. Now, we are in the midst of the flux that is confusing and raising fears as the disruption evolves. There are no simple solutions. But there are individual ones. Districts and schools are different. Their structures may be similar but the people are different. Schools are in different neighborhoods, they are small and large, they are wealthy and poor, they have new staffs or seasoned ones. What they all have in common is the need for heart to be reignited.
To maintain an environment built upon teachers' care and concern about the wellbeing of their students, care and concern need to return to the conversation. We have been called to focus energy on standards, assessments and evaluations. When the entire organization is placed in a state of flux, in which new learning has to take place, is measured, made public, and used to make important decisions, it is no surprise that something had to give.
We know that schools are not built on standards and skills alone. A reminder from ASCD's Whole Child Initiative:
- Each student enters school healthy and learns about and practices a healthy lifestyle.
- Each student learns in an environment that is physically and emotionally safe for students and adults.
- Each student is actively engaged in learning and is connected to the school and broader community.
- Each student has access to personalized learning and is supported by qualified, caring adults.
- Each student is challenged academically and prepared for success in college or further study and for employment and participation in a global environment.
Now is a good time to reconsider those aspects of our work that stem from the heart. The end of the school year, with all of its stresses, may be the best time to recommit to the actions that allow students and faculty to feel cared about and appreciated. There has been a hyper-focus, in many schools, on the academic changes as schools stretch to meet the demands of change. This is a reflection of our good work. "Don't worry, it will all be ok" is kind of a disconnected statement, especially when the entire year was spent on doing things "right" so all would be "ok."
Think about asking others, and ourselves, questions like, "What will support you and your work as you think forward to next year?" It seems a simple question, but it changes something important. It moves from the work, to the person, from compliance to efficacy. This is a seemingly simple shift, but one that can take all of us to a different place. As much as we must attend to the standards and assessments, it is important to remember the human beings, both children and adults. We need balance. As the school year is ending and the plans for next year begin, now is exactly the right time to bring forward those aspects of our work that stem from the heart of the teacher, the small acts previously unrecognized and unrewarded.