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?
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.
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