By John Mccullers
For those who have not spent a year or more in a classroom taking responsibility for developing young minds, it may appear that all changes are made for the benefit of the children. This may not be true.
Taxpayers love to hear buzzwords such as "accountability" and "merit pay" and want them applied to education. They are descriptive words that tend to provide assurance and comfort that the public is honestly getting all they can for their money. They are appropriate in many venues such as manufacturing where a count or measurement can be made to obtain a precise and objective result.
Education does not, however, lend itself to this type of measurement. Educators are dealing with human minds, not inanimate objects. Children come to the classroom with a wide range of intellectual and language abilities, background experiences, motivation and support systems. Those who have never been directly responsible for the awesome responsibility of personally teaching children may use their influence to implement programs that, to the non-educator, appear to be for children. Their ideas and efforts may be popular and bring them accolades from the tax-paying citizenry, but do little or nothing for children.
Another buzzword often referenced is "standardized testing." The FCAT (Florida Comprehensive Achievement Test), which is frequently in the news, is a standardized test. There are many standardized tests available to educators, but the FCAT is the one that has been selected for Florida schools. When used properly, a standardized test is an important tool for the professional teacher/educator in diagnosing strong or weak areas in an individual or an entire classroom. With a professional interpreting the results, an enrichment or remedial program, whichever the case may be, can then be custom designed. This is the proper use of a standardized test-to assist each teacher, in helping each student.
As a practical matter, standardized tests are generally administered to elementary students by their classroom teacher who is aware of the test questions. In the case of the FCAT, the results are currently being used as an accountability tool to give letter grades to schools and determine merit pay for teachers. With so much personally at stake, is it then not reasonable to assume that a teacher may give emphasis to the learning concepts being tested? If so, the credibility and reliability of the test are compromised thereby defeating the true purpose of a standardized test.
Improved test results qualify the entire school for additional state funding, the non-educators now have their sought after accountability and the public gets to view charts showing FCAT results in the newspaper. Were the children's best interests considered in using the FCAT results to give letter grades to schools and to evaluate teachers, or were the children "left behind" in this whole process?
Educators provide an amazing service and they readily assume the responsibility inherent with their chosen profession. As in any profession, however, there are those who perform their duties at differing levels of effectiveness. Both the faculty and administration are aware of these differences. Teacher evaluators, when doing their evaluations, take into consideration teacher conferences, daily observations, conversations and student abilities. They do not need results from the FCAT or any other standardized test for this purpose. As much as the public may want accountability, a standardized test is misused when it becomes a tool to evaluate teachers and schools. The results do not accurately reflect either the true effectiveness of a teacher or the quality of teaching within a school. Teachers should be allowed to teach the prescribed curriculum without the temptation or the need to focus on test items.
Standardized testing should be used as it is intended - to help the teachers know and understand each child's aptitude and achievement level and to help each child become the very best person he/she can be. When used as a measure for accountability purposes, standardized test results may satisfy the minds of taxpayers and politicians, but do not address the needs of the child.
Perhaps the terms "accountability" and "merit pay" would be more appropriately applied to legislators than to educators.
John McCullers of Ormond Beach is a former educator and was an administrator in charge of a standardized testing program in schools in Illinois.