Tuesday, May 5, 2015

Envying Balance, or state of assessing academic achievement in Texas schools

Just open your eyes and realize the way it’s always been
(lyric from The Moody Blues song The Balance)

Random Envy 5

Envying Balance,
or the sad state of assessing academic achievement in Texas schools

A hot Texas topic these days: teacher pay (and summer hasn’t even arrived). Of course, messing with anyone’s pay is an edgy way to run a business (or a state). The issue is whether to pay teachers for longevity or paying them based on merit. Longevity matters – just showing up for work everyday and being dependable matters. Especially in the face of classrooms with swelling numbers of students with all sorts of differences: behavioral, emotional, cognitive. Then throw in individual attitudes and different levels of motivation. With emphasis on placing children in least restrictive environments, that means no sending them home or to another school just because they are acting crazy and restricting the flow of routine.

But then again, going the extra mile also matters. How valuable are you when you DO show up? Do your students rush to your room in the morning because they long to learn something and they miss your inspired teaching? (Well, that’s not too likely – maybe at the onset of a fresh year when the summer has become a little boring, but even then they really are just rushing back to see what their friends are wearing and how the opposite sex has matured since they saw them last. And by April that thrill has long been replaced by the drudgery of dragging through everyday classes taught by teachers who are feeling their enthusiasm slide right out the window.)

Here’s an amazing idea! Why not keep a basic longevity rate AND give extra pay for those who earn it. Instead of solving the problem in our typically black-or-white approach, why not a more balanced one?

Then there is the dilemma of individual teachers testing students based on teacher judgment and style preferences versus the standardized approach of using one nationally-based instrument to assess everyone and attain consistency in instruction and outcome. The STAAR test (interesting acronym since hardly anyone finds it to be very shiny) attempts to assess knowledge in some unified way. This test calls for four-item response choices, lucky if you are the test-taker because you don’t need to know the answer as definitively as you would on fill-in-the-blank or short answer tests. You simply must identify it when you see it. I can do pretty well on that if you test me on state capitals. I know that Olympia goes with Washington and Jefferson City goes with Missouri (particularly if Austin, or Atlanta, or Oklahoma City are some of my choices). But stop me on the street and ask me outright what the capital of South Dakota is, and I may blow it. Remember too that any test that requires four multiple choice responses allows for a pretty significant 25% guess factor. On a lucky day you can look a lot smarter than you are (or, the opposite if it’s not your best day). We have a solution for the easy guess bit, though. We make the tests very tricky, altering a word here and there to make for subtle and confusing response options. So now, instead of focusing on teaching children useful life skills, we teach to the test and instruct them how to take tricky multiple choice tests. (Of course, this itself is a life skill of sorts – how to not be fooled by tricksters and predators, like those who develop group-administered tests!) If all life decisions were multiple choices this would be alright. Imagine being able to choose a spouse based on a choice of four persons (hey, on second thought, that’s not such a bad idea!). Sometimes, though, the multiple choice doesn’t work. (Imagine a police officer pulling you over, asking how fast you were going, and your reply is, “What are my choices?)” We do love our computers and our conveniently scorable tests, though. And who wants to read lengthy essays that require scoring judgment? (But at least now answers can be typed, and teachers don’t have to decipher scribble.)

Political parties are having a lot of fun with this issue, conjuring up all kinds of new strategies every year, each no real improvement over the previous year and ultimately just creating confusion. Democrats push one direction, Republicans push the other. (And speaking of that, wouldn’t we be more balanced if we voted “independent”; being Americans, shouldn’t we be proud to embrace anything with the word “independent” in it?) The requirement that one accepts a “package deal” instead of a balance is difficult. It’s simply too hard to endorse everything one group stands for.
Even the Beatles made occasional mistakes in musical or personal judgment.

Okay. We see how this writing has evolved. It’s really a piece on balance itself. And that is a more eastern concept than our back-and-forth, schizoid western way of conducting affairs, where we change directions annually in order to try to reach the balance we are desperately shooting for to begin with…

To be continued….