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If I'm .84 Points Away from Statistical Perfection, Why am I So Darn Angry?

November was a big month here in North Carolina, as our state released the results of our newest round of standardized tests.  Given that this was the first year that students were tested in math and language arts against the more rigorous standards of the Common Core AND the first year that middle grades students were tested in science or social studies at all, most teachers and school leaders I know spent the better part of October hoping against hope that their numbers wouldn't land them in the news for all the wrong reasons.

This year was different for North Carolina classroom teachers in another way, too:  This was the first year that the scores our students made on standardized tests will be used to rank and sort teachers.  

And make no mistake about it, the ranking and sorting is for REALLY high stakes:  Our state legislature decided last year to eliminate tenure AND automatic pay raises for teachers.  To "incentivize good teaching," they've replaced our compensation system with a program that puts every teacher in the state on one-year terminating contracts. Four year contracts and $500 raises will only be offered to teachers whose evaluations -- which by law must include value-added scores generated from our end-of-grade exams through a bit of statistical magic by our friendly community neighbors at SAS -- place them in the top 25% of teachers in our county.

So needless to say, I held my breath and crossed my fingers as I logged into our state's teacher evaluation program to see how the test scores of my students compared to the scores of students taught by other teachers in my county and state.  

Turns out, I did pretty well.  On the handy-dandy SAS-Value-Added-Super-Scale that ranged from less than 0 to 10, I was a 9.16.  The county average for other science teachers was a 3.

Over lunch on a recent staff development day, our administrative intern sat down at my table and asked,"So, how do you feel about your scores now that you've seen them, Bill?"

That shouldn't be too tough to answer, right?  After all, according to the statistical minds behind the curtain SAS and in the eyes of our duly elected legislature -- the collective body that MIGHT just deem me worthy of a 4-year contract and a $500 raise this year -- I am LITERALLY .84 value-added points away from perfect.  I should be dancing on the ceiling, shouldn't I?

#randomlionelrichiereference

But I'm not.  Instead, I'm ashamed.  Knowing that our state's "measure of student learning" for science was a 35 question, fact-driven test that did little to actually measure thinking skills or the ability to function like practicing scientists, I ditched meaningful instruction at the end of the school year and spent more time reviewing key vocabulary words with students than I've ever spent in my entire career.  Turns out that spending close to two weeks sorting words and grouping words and studying words and quizzing one another on words will do wonders for your value-added score here in North Carolina.

And I'm embarrassed that I copped out.  I've long said that I didn't care what test scores said about me and that I would hold fast to my commitment to designing meaningful learning experiences even if the legislative leaders of my state didn't much care about seeing higher level thinking integrated into the classroom.  My students deserved better even if the people making the policies that govern their intellectual lives didn't know better.

But I folded on my principles as soon as the stakes got high.  Worried that "my numbers" wouldn't add up and that I'd become a statistical victim of crappy policies, I figured out what kinds of behaviors would translate into numerical success on fact-driven multiple choice tests and spent time preparing my kids in ways that I have always been philosophically opposed to.

I'm also freaking angry because I know that my own daughter will begin slogging her way through the numerical soup starting in the fall.  If my commitment to meaningful instruction despite our state's failure to incentivize the right classroom skills and behaviors waivered, isn't it likely that other teachers waivered too?  I can't be the ONLY guy who drifted towards drill-and-kill instruction because that's the kind of instruction that best prepares kids for -- and my continued employment is tied directly to numbers generated on -- low level multiple choice tests, can I?

If this is what school in North Carolina becomes in response to the determination of state legislators to "change the way we reward teachers," then I'm not sure I want my own kid going to public school.

I'm more secretive than I ever thought I would be -- and I sense that my peers are growing more secretive too.  I've started to feel an unnatural hesitation every time that I share an instructional strategy that works simply because I know that I'm sharing that strategy with someone who I'm literally competing with for contract protections and raises.  While intellectual collaboration has rested at the very core of who I am for years, I worry that collaborating in our current educational climate might just put my own professional standing at risk.

But I guess I really should be relieved.  After all, I'm a 9.16 and the average teacher in the county is a 3.

Now to be perfectly honest, I have NO idea what exactly a 9.16 or a 3 means and I have no useful information about the content that my kids did and/or didn't master -- the reports teachers have access to do little to explain how value added scores are generated and there are no item analyses or goal summary reports generated for science tests -- but considering that 9 is close to 10 and 3 times better than 3, I'm guessing I won't get fired this year.

#whew

#sheesh

#doublesheesh

______________________

Related Radical Reads:

Is Standardized Testing Changing Me for the Worse?

Convinced Testing is Harming Schools? You're Not the Only One

Three Reasons North Carolina's New Plans for Paying Teachers are a Bad Idea

Value-Added Teacher Evaluation Plans Fail Kids and Communities

Three Things I Wish Every Parent and Policymaker Knew about Merit Pay in Education

12 Comments

Renee Moore commented on December 7, 2013 at 7:07pm:

Sad Situation All Around

First, thank you for being brave enough to share what so many teachers, especially those who are parents, are going through--and not just in NC. 

This new state policy and its ramifications make no ethical or pedagogical sense, but then I don't believe that was the intent anyway. State level politicians want high test scores for bragging rights; so they can use this so-called data as part of their lure to attract businesses ("ooh look, our numbers say we have smarter, cheap labor than state X...move here"). That's why the NGA was so adamant in its support for CCSS. It's got nothing to do with truly educating all children, and everything to do with giving states another way to compete with each other.  

Meanwhile, millions of children are being subjected to training rather than real learning. Teachers, especially those with families, are forced to make unprincipled concessions in their teaching, since they are often not in a position to move to a more humane setting. One other option, which you may not have had (yet), is organized opposition. I'm thinking of the schools whose teachers and parents have simply said, "No" to state testing; or those like Mission Hill in Boston where the entire faculty, led by a fearless principal, focus on real teaching and learning, and let the test scores fall where they may.But these are still too rare exceptions across public schools in this country, especially here in the new old South.  

And how does getting state test scores for last year's students in November of the current school year help them or their teachers?

As for your own child, you have to make the decision that makes the most sense for her and for your family, but what a senseless waste of human potential the state leaders have created. That this is happening in NC, which at one time was the education trendsetter of the Southeast, makes it even harder to fathom. 

Bill Ferriter Bill Ferriter commented on December 8, 2013 at 8:02am:

Renee wrote: 

Renee wrote: 

Meanwhile, millions of children are being subjected to training rather than real learning.

--------------------------

This is the crux of it for me, Renee:  The kids in my classroom are definitely getting more training than learning, and that's ridiculous.  But in the end, I'm not going to feel guilty about giving the state exactly what it is asking for.  

I get frustrated with people who try to shame me for making the choices that I do.  People will say all the time, "You should do the right thing for your students no matter what the consequences are."  That's narrow-minded and foolish.  After all, "the right thing" according to the legislature that THEY elected is exactly what I'm doing in my classroom.

I guess what I'm saying is that change shouldn't depend on my willingness to defy the system that was created by those who our state decided to give political control to -- and teachers shouldn't be held to different standards than the politicians who govern their work.  If my choices are immoral or unprofessional, then what does that mean for the people who created the system that I am responding to?

Any of this make sense?

Bill

Bill Ivey commented on December 8, 2013 at 8:09pm:

As always,

you make lots of sense. This reminds me of the scene in To Kill a Mockingbird when Miss Maudie makes the point that the town needs Atticus Finch to fight the battles they know need fighting but don't have the courage to face. The idea that each person in the town actually does have the choice to do the right thing if they want gets somewhat lost in the process. Of course, the major difference here is that you, unlike Atticus, are in a lose-lose situation. That, too, seems to be a point lost on those who expect more of you than they do of themselves.

Bottom line, if one is given two choices both of which one deems to be immoral, one is bound to make an immoral choice. Each of us does our best with the choices we are given, and none of us has the right to judge another's course of action. I do believe we have the obligation to fight for moral choices, but that each of us who undertakes that fight has the right to do so in ways that make sense for ourselves.

Virginia commented on December 8, 2013 at 10:58am:

WOW!

Thank you for this amazing post.  And Renee, what an awesome response.  I am a third year teacher and have quickly been slapped in the face with numbers and statistics by administration.  That's all that seems to matter these days...  I had no idea what I was in for (things they DON'T prep you for in college!) before signing on as a teacher.  I thought I was signing up to make a difference and teach what I love.  However, it has become clear that administration, school boards, school legislature, etc. is all about the facade and not about the children and the actual education.  To be honest, I am fearful of the days when these children become our leaders.  I hope things turn around - and quickly - for the sake of our future as a state and a country.  

Cheryl Suliteanu commented on December 8, 2013 at 11:40am:

oh the pain!

Bill, like Renee, I am very thankful you decided to share this with us. I cannot imagine the pain of this conundrum... 

I took the liberty of looking into your NCAE website, in hopes of getting some perspective on how this unfair, unnecessary, and simply WRONG, law could have been enacted.  I found this: "The NCAE will be filing a lawsuit against the State for violating state and federal constitutional rights based on these contract principles. We anticipate the litigation to be filed later this year or the beginning of 2014." http://www.ncae.org/whats-new/career-status-fact-sheet/

When extraordinary teachers are forced into impossible dilemmas such as teaching to keep their jobs, or teaching children to be lifelong learners, we should all work together to transform the policy-makers' understanding of how to improve student acheivement.  Clearly, they have NO CLUE what they're doing to teachers, students, and their community. Solidarity and passion need to come together to end this.

What has NCAE done to rally the teachers in North Carolina to first prevent, now reverse this decision? Did you have local rallies, state-wide action, community information meetings? Has NEA become involved? 

As for your role as a parent - do what you need to do to ensure that your child is educated in a way she deserves.  If that means pulling her out of public education in North Carolina - I"m 100% with you.  What do other families think? 

I will be eager to follow what is going on in North Carolina when the litigation starts. I personally, am going to let my local and state representatives know that we, as NEA members, need to work with you to fight for our students' rights to the best education we can offer. 

 

 

Brianna Crowley commented on December 8, 2013 at 12:04pm:

Absolute sense.

If you were a teacher who felt that the system created to evaluate you and your students was unjust, unprofessional, and damaging, and yet all you did about it was to complain to your colleagues down the hall and your wife at home--then, you may have a reason to feel some responsibility beyond just "doing what you're told." However, you are NOT that teacher. Instead, you are writing truthfully and forcefully and a national platform about the injustices you are seeing and are being forced (to some extent) to perpetuate. That is your action.

Those who say you should do more are likely convicted to do more themselves. Yet that does not give them the right to point fingers at your action. It is somewhat simple and foolish to refuse to do the job that those in positions above you have determined. Doing this will only sacrifice your job and your ability to make a further impact. Each person needs to understand the degree to which his/her resistance furthers a better solution for teachers and students. Only those who do nothing should feel shame. We should be united with our colleagues who decide what their "something" is and support them wholeheartedly.  

Robert Sterner commented on December 8, 2013 at 3:13pm:

35 Questions for All the Marbles

"a 35 question, fact-driven test"

Teaching to the test is a natural reaction when placed under these kinds of pressures.  It only makes sense.  What did we do as students when studying for the SAT back in high school?  We took practice tests, memorized lists of vocaulary, and (depending upon our age) composed practice 25-minute "essays."  

I remember an Educational Psychology class I took in college.  The professor was very mad with the class.  The scores were uniformly low.  I had the highest grade in the class with an 80%.  It was a lengthy 200 question test chock full of exotic sounding vocabulary, facts, dates, and famous psychologists.  "Mr. Sterner," the professor asked as he looked at my test, "please tell the class how you scored so well?"  Foolishly perhaps, I answered honestly.  "I memorized all the material.  If you give me the same test in two weeks, I'll fail."  He did not appreciate my candor and threw my test at me.  The disgust was palpable.

Do we--in our professional capacity as classroom teachers--ever rely upon 35 questions for the entire grade?  Perhaps for a single skill or unit, true.  But would we do that for an entire course?  Would a professor do that?  Would an employer recertify  a nuclear engineer with 35 questions?  Would the police offer a detective's exam with just 35 questions?  

Clearly not, but with so much riding on so few questions teaching to the test is an entirely understandable reaction.

But how do states test students--and by extension teachers--and not break the bank?  Testing so many students is expensive.  The simple answer is a multiple choice test with a limited number of questions.  That's cold financial logic.  It doesn't make for great assessment, but it does save money.  

Is there a form of testing, uniform across multiple districts even states, that does not put pressure on teachers to "teach to the test"?  I'm not sure such a test exists or will ever exist.

Perhaps I'm an idealist, but I do hold out hope.

Wendi Pillars commented on December 8, 2013 at 8:47pm:

Thank you, Bill

As always, you're spot on. We have been discussing the 25% situation with our superintendent, and the feeling all around--in a nutshell--is that it will produce nothing but negative outcomes. Within our elementary school, homeroom teachers may have their own students for an hour, or two--at most, per day. We collaborate constantly, share kids throughout the day, and spent hours at the end of last year, dividing up students into percentages based on time spent with each teacher. Imagine breaking it down into being 13% responsible for x's social studies instruction, 42% for y's daily literacy instruction, 22% for another's instruction, and so on. 

We have truly reduced our kids to numbers--all hail the mighty data--all at the expense of our instructional time, and planning time. And now we are told that all 3rd graders must be put on a portfolio beginning in January; each 3rd grader will take at least 36 tests before the end of the year (we were told "no more than 3 tests per week" because that would simply "not make sense"--wha...???) 

So, what that means is that instead of assessments informing our instruction via learning feedback, they are now informing our instruction--by when we can actually instruct, since assessment demands so much more of our time. 

NC, please just let us breathe. Step back and absorb what all has happened. Morale is suffering, and a budding culture of fear has taken hold--in lieu of real learning, it's no wonder many are opting for training our students instead. Creative energy is at an all-time low for many teachers, and the turnover rate is one of the highest in history.

 ...but there is discussion happening, and optimism still exists. Letters are being written, phone calls are being made. It's just a matter of time until something gives. 

Marcy H. commented on December 8, 2013 at 9:59pm:

Let's not forget...

To add on to what you're going through, Bill, let me say two things:

1) As a veteran teacher, I was once assigned to a certain track that will remain nameless at our school where there was a concentration of traditionally low-performing students. At the time, my growth percentage was 96%. Yep, 96% of the students I taught showed growth.  The students I was teaching at the time almost literally had no place to go but up. In one of my two classes, I had 60% of students who had scored 1s or 2s on the EOGs the year before.  

2) Since then, I have been moved to a track where there is a large concentration of students will high EOG scores in years past; as a matter of fact, of my 120 students I have currently, 35 are categorized as gifted, and only about 5 have scored 1s or 2s in reading in the past.  My EOG results for this past year? Just "Meets Expectations". Now, what about the teacher who took over my old track? This teacher happens to be a rookie and, while talented and no doubt a good teacher, is using the lessons that I have worked tirelessly to prepare. What about this teacher's score? You got it: "Exceeds Expectations".  

 

What does all this mean? Well for starters, I have no desire to teacher advanced kids, where I am to help a student who already has a 4 to get a higher 4. I want to believe that I am philanthropic and will do it because it's "what's best for the kids", but I have bills to pay just like everyone.  I want to teach those low-performing kids again who have nowhere to go but up so I am paid my enormous $500 bonus.  Is it fair and just that the rookie teacher who had no choice in picking the kids he was charged with teaching will bask in the top 25% glow, while I languish in mediocrity because my kids were already high-performing? Not to mention the fact that the rookie teacher is relying on lessons developed by me. What reason do I have to share with this teacher now?

Merit pay, shmerit pay.

Renee Moore commented on December 9, 2013 at 11:23pm:

All Children Suffer

Thank you for reminding us about that other side of the teaching to the test trap. Not only is it painful for the students labeled as failing or low performing, but it is equally destructive to our high achievers and their teachers!  Imagine how many creative souls and potential talents (students and teachers) have been crushed under this system?  When enough people get as tired of this as people did with segregation and apartheid, we will be ready to do what has to be done to stop it. But we can't wait for an educational Moses to lead us out of this wilderness. I agree with others here, it will take organization and coalitions of organizations, legislative pressure, election savvy, lawsuits, and some good old-fashioned civil disobedience to turn this ship around. The good news is we have the examples and the numbers. 

Amber commented on December 9, 2013 at 11:10am:

Thanks

Hard to believe that one mans mission to destroy public education in NC has come to fruition. Thank Phil Berger for destroying education in NC.

Wendi Pillars commented on December 9, 2013 at 8:10pm:

So, my question is...

...how can we take the energy roiling inside and channel it positively? How do we take our experiences and our message to the legislature in a way that informs THEIR practice, that explains our concerns and presents our solutions in a way that invites them to listen?

I'm ready for suggestions from those with experience in this, and those looking in from the outside...

 

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