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Moving Beyond Standardized Test Scores in Evaluating Special Education Teachers: Part I

The annual high stakes state standardized testing season is now over.

As teachers and administrators begin to receive the results, they can begin to answer the complex question, "How did we do this year?"

And while educators in schools review the data of real students in real world contexts, in education policy, the contentious debates of how to use standardized test scores in teacher and school evaluation continue.

Will (or how should) test scores be used in teacher evaluation?

What types of access should the public have with test scores from schools or individual teachers?

I've written about some of these questions in previous posts.

Here are two "real teacher examples" to throw into the discussion. This week, we learn about "Ms. M." Next week, we'll learn about "Ms. E."

(Note: the identity and gender may have been changed to protect the guilty. The examples and test results are real.)

"Ms. M." is a high school special education math teacher and has just learned that her Algebra 2 "self contained class" of special education students earned a 100% pass rate on this year's state Algebra 2 standardized test. Last year, she was also recognized by the school for her high test scores and pass rates. (Special education self contained classes typically have 1 special education teacher and anywhere from 10-15 students.)

There are many reasons for Ms. M. and students to celebrate. A 100% pass rate for a special education self contained class in this subject has never been achieved at this large high school. These particular students had failed previous math standardized tests in the earlier grade levels; now, they have all learned the content, passed their Algebra 2 standardized test, and are one step closer to fulfilling their math credits for their high school diploma.

"Ms. M." is the kind of teacher that both sides of the education debate would honor.

From one perspective, the evidence of standardized test scores proves that students with disabilities can succeed with grade level content in higher level mathematics. The standardized test scores remove any doubt of teacher grade inflation or having lower expectations than other students in the general education classes.

From a professional development perspective, the comparison of this teacher's test results of these students with other similar students in the same school (with the same local environmental risk factors) taking the same class, but with other teachers, can lead to powerful conversations about pedagogy, practice, available resources, support, and professional growth.

From the other perspective on this debate, when one examines Ms. M's background, this teacher is the product of traditional teacher education programs, the type of teaching pathway that some reformers want to bypass. She is a career teacher and spent many years in other subjects and grade levels, teaching students with many different needs.

Looking more into Ms. M's background, she is certified for both special education and eligible for certification in general education high school mathematics. This dual certification addresses the strengths and weaknesses of both paths to teaching. The special education background provides experiences for addressing individual learning needs and differentiation of content. The general education background provides experiences for deeper content knowledge across grade levels.

Both levels of preparation are important. In terms of content knowledge, special education teachers new to their subject and grade level are sometimes criticized for being one chapter ahead of their students. In terms of differentiation and finding alternate ways to teach a concept, some general education math teachers think that repeating the same lesson while speaking louder and slower are valid ways to differentiate to diverse learners. :-)

Most importantly, "Ms. M." is acquiring dual certification and produced these results because the school district encouraged continuous professional development by providing free courses required for the high school math endorsement.

For teachers who may not be able to pursue full endorsement, the district sponsors or provides a wide variety of seminars and classes to support math instruction. This school district recognized the shortage of high school math teachers, particularly those who teach students with special needs or at diverse schools, and committed time and resources to develop their teachers. As a special education teacher, "Ms. M." also co-taught with strong general education teachers and was supported with many resources.

So, in this debate of the role of standardized test scores, educators and policymakers need to look beyond the numbers and avoid hasty conclusions based solely on test scores.

Yes, "Ms. M" is dedicated and effective. Her high test scores are to be celebrated, but part of this level of effectiveness was also the result of many complex factors beyond an individual's control.

Ms. M's enthusiasm and commitment to become a better teacher fortunately coincided with a supportive school and district. If she began her career teaching in a different environment, unsupported by administration, surrounded by ineffective role models, without access to quality professional development, had inadequate resources, the outcomes could be completely different.

If policy makers want to use test scores as a lever to improve student learning, they will need to look beyond numbers to truly understand its role in understanding teacher effectiveness. They will need to understand that teachers with diverse students with high test scores were also supported by many other factors beyond individual professional commitment and..... "talent" -another "reform" word often used to imply other meanings about current teachers.

Will deeper analysis of how high standardized test scores are achieved be used to validate the tremendous amount of time and resources it takes for teachers to develop their craft and be supported as they help students?

Let's hope so, because math teachers, whether in special education or general education, at this level of content and instructional mastery are extremely rare. We can either use test scores to create a revolving door of teachers and hope that the next one showing up will be more effective than the last, or we begin to create the policies and practices to develop the teachers the students need.

And what does Ms. M think about the 100% pass rate in her self contained Algebra 2 class?

When I last corresponded with Ms. M, she was too busy designing a creative math lesson for her self contained Algebra 2 class, saying,

"Testing is over, now we can do something mathematically fun and challenging before the school year ends."

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