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Losing Ground: America’s testing culture hurts teachers, too

Part two of a three-part series on America’s testing culture and its impacts on education.

In our last post about the negative percussions associated with American education’s testing culture, we outlined how examination after examination hurts the development of our students. But while it is important to keep in mind the purpose of our schools – to educate children – we should also not neglect the effect of testing on the millions of educators around the nation.

When an educator’s value is determined by the scores their students receive on standardized assessments – test results that often reflect circumstances far beyond teachers’ control – its isn’t only detrimental to students, it also hurts teachers.

Rebecca Cusick, a fourth grade teacher in Fall River, Massachusetts, told her story to The Washington Post. In it, despite she describes how she distrusted standardized tests, knew her score was going to be low, but still was resentful of the scores that, “probably believe I did my students more harm than good.”

So why do I, of all people, take this so personally when I should know better?

Maybe it’s because I gave it everything I’ve got. Last year’s class was needier than some of my previous groups. They shared stories of desperation that would prevent most adults from functioning well.  Sleeping on a floor in an over-crowded, rat-infested apartment, seeing a family member arrested, and looking forward to dinner at the soup kitchen; these are not the tales of an idyllic childhood.

While standardized testing might be able to track teacher and student performance in a vacuum, it cannot adequately account for difficulties students have learning for reasons that couldn’t be less involved with the classroom. Poverty, family instability, and other household concerns can severely inhibit a child from learning what they’re taught, no matter how well they’re taught it, which consequently hurts the reputation of educators who are merely doing their best.

Much of the concerns regarding teacher evaluation comes from its top-down approach; a district or state puts into place a system from afar meant to evaluate performance on a micro-level, which ultimately leads to issues and oversights that could only be avoided if the evaluation was more local. Some like Deborah Kenny, an educator who penned an op-ed piece for The New York Times lambasting this top-down testing model, have argued that principals should be chiefly responsible not only for personnel decisions, but for student achievement:

There is no formula for quantifying compassion, creativity, intellectual curiosity or any number of other traits that make a group of teachers motivate one another and inspire greatness in their students. Principals must be empowered to use everything they know about their faculty — including student achievement data — to determine which teachers they will retain, promote or, when necessary, let go. This is how every successful enterprise functions.

A government-run teacher evaluation bureaucracy will make it impossible to attract great teachers and will diminish the motivation of the ones we have. It will make teaching so scripted and controlled that we won’t be able to attract smart, passionate people. Everyone says we should treat teachers as professionals, but then they promote top-down policies that are insulting to serious educators.

The one-size-fits-all solutions inherent to our education system’s testing culture will ultimately ignore the low-level but meaningful hurdles that impede or strangle student growth. And they can punish well-meaning, effective educators for circumstances well beyond their control.

It’s time many of testing culture’s fondest prophets – often those who preach smaller, less-intrusive government – take a page out of their own playbook by trusting the people who have devoted their lives not to a earning a big paycheck, but to educating America’s children.

By EOI Intern Bill Dow

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