This one is really wonky, folks, but if you're concerned about standardized testing, I urge you to read on!
Over breakfast this morning, Secretary of Education Arne Duncan acknowledged that the administration's success, via Race to the Top, in getting states to agree to evaluate teachers based on student achievement data has outpaced the ability of states to create the student assessments that make such teacher evaluation possible.
"This is clearly going to be a choppy transition period," Duncan said, later adding, "We're clearly, as a country, in our infancy" on using student data to evaluate teachers.
Here's the problem: Currently, fewer than half of all public school teachers teach a tested subject in a tested grade. As states embrace value-added teacher evaluation, however, schools will need to collect data on the student achievement outcomes of all teachers. That means either issuing pencil and paper tests to students in every grade and subject area, or devising more complex (and potentially expensive to administer) assessments, such as portfolio systems that correspond to some kind of numerial scale.
In an upcoming American Prospect feature, I look at how one state, Colorado, is attempting to thread this needle. I visited Harrison District 2 in Colorado Springs, where schools are administering pencil and paper tests in grades K-12 in every single subject, including art, music, and physical education.
When I asked Duncan about that model, he said he doesn't believe paper tests are the best way to collect value-added data in nontraditional subjects. Assistant Secretary Carmel Martin, who was also in the meeting, offered more detail: The DOE is currently "developing guidance for states, so they appreciate it doesn't have to be a paper and pencil test," Martin said. "In things like music and physical education, there are other ways" to assess students and teachers, such as presentations and portfolios of student work.
The challenge is that although most people agree that paper tests in kindergarten gym class are absurd, many districts will be sorely tempted to take the easy way out–testing–when told they must now collect "data" on every single teacher. Tests are cheap to administer and score and have the benefit of being "objective;" unless there is outright cheating, two different evaluators will grade a test much the same way. In addition, there's the thorny question of whether it's fair to evaluate and pay a math teacher according to "objective" test-score data, while relying on a highly subjective portfolio system to evaluate and pay an art teacher.
I don't think we're anywhere near a consensus on this, nor a guarantee that value-added teacher evaluation won't lead to much more standardized testing of children. It's good news, however, that the Obama administration plans to jump in and defend the idea of comprehensive assessments that take into account "multiple measures"–not just test scores.