“If your students aren’t learning then you’re not an effective teacher. And that should be reflected in annual assessments.”—Jessica Waters, Rhode Island 2013 Teacher of the Year
Those words are just a small piece of what was heard by staffers for Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse, D-RI, during a conference call last week with two award-winning teachers from Rhode Island.
The impetus for the call was the hearing last month in the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions—during which Sen. Whitehouse suggested the teachers with whom he had spoken were opposed to annual testing.
“My experience in the education world is that there are really two worlds in it,” Whitehouse said during the hearing. “One is the world of contract and consultants and academics and experts and plenty of officials at the federal state and local level. And the other is a world of principals and classroom teachers who are actually providing education to students. What I’m hearing from my principals’ and teachers’ world is that the footprint of that first world has become way too big in their lives to the point where it’s inhibiting their ability to do the jobs they’re entrusted to do.
“Indeed, the footprint made by education policy leaders in classrooms has left behind a form of mandated testing that is designed to test the school and not the student.”
His words immediately struck a chord with me because they just didn’t jibe at all with what I’d been hearing (and continue to hear) from teachers. His words were eerily aligned with the NEA’s recent talking points and it led me to conclude that he’d be well served by hearing from additional teachers. Especially high-achieving teachers from the state he represents.
I arranged the meeting with Whitehouse’s team, so as a former teacher and mother of three, I was grateful for the staffer’s honesty when he confirmed my hunch that in terms of teacher feedback, the Senator had only been hearing the opinions of the NEA.
Early in the call, high school educators Jessica Waters and Jay LeClair, hammered home the point that testing isn’t only helping the school but is also about helping the student.
“My students self assess while they’re taking tests,” said LeClair, a high school fine arts teacher recently recognized as his district’s teacher of the year. “The tests also provide a baseline to me and my colleagues and help us decide which way to go, how to individualize, and how to diversify the education we provide.”
He went on to say that “grades alone can’t be the sole determining factor for kids as they look at their higher education options.”
Both agreed that readiness for high-stakes testing is important for kids and that annual tests help to prepare kids for their entrance exams into whatever their next chapter may be. They rejected the concept of “teaching to the test” as nothing other than weak teaching that should immediately be addressed by school leaders. Both agreed emphatically that any worthy “test prep” lives organically inside strong, effective, engaging teaching that leads students to develop the skills they’ll need to employ during an annual assessment.
As far as the plea that we “just let the teachers teach,” neither seemed to understand what that means. Waters responded with concern that if it means standing at the front of the room delivering content day after day, there is no reason to assume it’s even time well spent. Both were incredulous that anyone would actually be spending class time using sample test questions and having practice sessions. Again, they agreed that any test prep like that was a problem and fell on the school principal to eradicate.
Each highlighted their concerns over the current situation in Rhode Island and nationally around teacher evaluation. The Senator’s staffer acknowledged that Whitehouse generally opposes including annual student growth scores in teacher evaluations, especially early on in teachers’ careers.
During the hearing, Whitehouse urged his colleagues to consider more closely the purpose of testing—not just how many tests and how often but how assessments are used. He concluded:
“We have to be very careful about distinguishing the importance of the purpose of this oversight and not allow the purpose of the oversight to be conducted in such an inefficient, wasteful, clumsy way that the people who we really trust to know to do this education—the people who are in the classroom—are not looking back at us and saying, ‘Stop. Help. I can’t deal with this. You are inhibiting my ability to teach.’”
Both LeClair and Waters view it differently. They believe that an objective measure of student learning must be a piece of teachers’ evaluations. Waters added, “You can’t have a failing school or failing district with 98 percent of teachers effective or highly effective.”
Never fear, there is some common ground. Senator Whitehouse has publicly said there is too much testing in America’s schools, and LeClair and Waters agree. Both teachers say districts require too many tests, and many can be eliminated as redundant. Waters believes that, in most cases, districts are not even using the data they are collecting from the assessments.
We hope our senator from Rhode Island takes some time to reflect on the real-world perspectives of these two classroom teachers and countless like them across the state and nation—and he can find some value in their views, as he does those from the teachers unions.
If he wants to ensure that all of America’s children, especially our most vulnerable, get the education they deserve, he has no option but to support annual testing. It is the only way to know whether those he represents at home in the Ocean State are actually learning and are prepared to follow in his footsteps to college and beyond.