The reformy plan for educators is to fire our way to a better teaching corps. The firings will be based on standardized tests scores run through some sort of statistical meat grinder. Here in Jersey, our DOE is partial to Student Growth Percentiles; elsewhere, they're using Value Added Models. It's all pretty much the same: if you're a teacher, your fate hinges on how your kids do on bubble tests.
(And let's not start with that "But it's only part of the evaluation!" nonsense. It may be only part of the evaluation, but it's all of the decision.)
Now, one of my biggest challenges as an elementary educator is to differentiate instruction. Because all of the kids are pretty much taught together. Sure, there's some pull-out time for either end of the bell curve: the high-achievers and the strugglers. But we do try to mainstream children as much as possible, as I believe we should.
This changes in middle school: we start tracking kids, and they spin off in different directions. In my own kids' district, math instruction splits to three separate paths in the Sixth Grade. Where I work, we do some differentiation in Fifth, and then split into tracks in Sixth. Language arts comes later, science next, and then, by high school, students are on completely different academic routes.
I don't honestly know if there is a research base for this or not; my curricular expertise is in the arts. I know other countries track much earlier than the US, but I'm not sure if this is for pedagogical or cultural reasons. If anyone has some insight, let me know.
The point is that at some age we acknowledge that certain students need an accelerated track to meet their full potentials. All well and good... except the high-stakes assessments we are now going to use to measure teacher quality do not split into different tracks.
Think about it: the kid who is taking algebra in Seventh Grade - and is on track to take calculus in her junior year - is taking the same standardized test as the kid taking pre-algebra. In fact, it's the same test the kid taking pre-pre-algebra is taking.
Now, math is certainly a scaffolded curriculum: you need to add before you multiply, and you need to multiply before you do exponents, and so on. But doing a lot of work with exponents is not necessarily the best preparation for a test of addition skills. If you want to really soar on an addition test, you'll drill on addition.
In the pre-reformy world, bubble tests were a nuisance for those teaching high-performing kids. You lost a week of teaching to the tests, but at least you knew all of your kids would pass. Maybe some of your students would come in as "proficient" instead of "advanced proficient," but who cared? As long as the school made Adequate Yearly Progress, you could just give the tests to your advanced kids, let them breeze through, and forget the entire thing.
But now the teachers are going to be judged on student growth on these tests. Pay, tenure, and employment will be based on the outcomes. The high flyers are expected to be able to ace content they supposedly have moved past. If they don't, the teacher's job is on the line.
Put yourself in an Eighth Grade geometry (a high level of mathematics for that age) teacher's shoes for a minute. Your kids will be taking a test that mostly covers content from last year. Your livelihood is on the line. Your ability to pay your mortgage is predicated not on your kids' abilities to pass a test in this year's content, but on last year's content.
What are you going to do? Push them ahead? Or make damn well sure they "grow" on a test based on what they did the previous year?
I'm hoping we have some serious discussion about this, and I'm hoping we have it soon. Maybe folks like Gary Rubinstein can weigh in. But I'm worried.
I'm worried the very kids who were supposed to lead this nation in the next generation - the kids who were going to grow up and make the wonder drugs and design the cars that run on water and pilot ships to Mars - will be forced to wallow in a dumbed-down curriculum. All because their teachers will be punished if these smart kids don't do well on exams that are not relevant to where they are at the moment.
The rest of the world is looking at us and wondering why we want to take a nation built on creativity and individuality and letting genius run free and make it "standardized." It's a very good question.
Did not make "Advanced Proficient" on NJASK-8.