What happens in the classroom when a state begins to evaluate all teachers, at every grade level, based on how well they “grow” their students’ test scores? Colorado is about to find out.  Dana Goldstein wrote The Test Generation, a long piece in American Prospect raising lots of concerns about efforts to use data as part of teacher evaluations in Colorado enacted in the race to secure a Race to the Top grant.  Here’s the guts of Dana’s argument:

A number of state- and city-level studies from the No Child Left Behind era found that swiftly rising scores on high-stakes state tests were accompanied by appalling stagnation in students’ actual knowledge as measured by the National Assessment of Educational Progress, the gold-standard exam administered to a sample set of students each year by the federal Department of Education. In 2005, for example, Alabama reported that 83 percent of its fourth-graders were proficient in reading, even though the NAEP found that only 22 percent of these children were proficient readers. The harsh punishments associated with NCLB had encouraged Alabama and most other states to dumb down their tests and then teach directly to them.

“The kind of motivation that results from pressure can get you certain kinds of test scores, but what happens is that the motivation and the learning don’t persist over time,” says Edward Deci, a social psychologist and expert on motivation. Deci has studied the effects of testing on teaching and learning since the early 1970s, and he is a firm opponent of tying teacher evaluation and pay to student test scores. “The kind of learning associated with pressure is rote learning, rather than conceptual learning,” he says.

Despite these warnings from social science and the patent absurdity of first-graders writing critiques of Matisse, Harrison’s culture of high-pressure testing could represent the wave of the future in Colorado — and across the country. In May, the Colorado Legislature narrowly passed Senate Bill 191, or “The Great Teachers and Leaders Bill.” Taking cues from the Obama administration’s education-reform agenda, a narrow bipartisan majority voted to overhaul the way Colorado’s teachers are evaluated and granted tenure. Beginning in 2013, 51 percent of every teacher’s annual professional evaluation score must be based on student-achievement data. Once the law goes into full effect, any teacher in the state can lose tenure if he earns unsatisfactory performance evaluations two years in a row. If he then fails remediation efforts and loses his job, he won’t be guaranteed a new one; after one year without a classroom assignment, he will be let go.

She argues more testing takes too much time and narrows the curriculum and that teaching is too complicated to measure.  I don’t buy the argument and lean toward DFER’s version of the story as outlined in this policy brief.

Adding performance data to evaluations is a good idea–it’s a cornerstone concept to a performance-based system.   Dana says, “As New York, Louisiana, and other states revamp their own teacher-evaluation systems to incorporate student-achievement data, they are paying attention to how Colorado implements SB 191.”

She’s right that it will be a challenge to do this well, but there is new set of opportunities and challenges that most folks on both sides of this argument are missing.  They are having a 1995 argument instead of building a 2015 system.

Current attempts to build value-added systems are constructed around the old model: batch processing age-cohorts in a teacher-centric time-based system with end of year paper and pencil tests.  That system is obsolete; it’s expensive and ineffective.  Most kids don’t get what they need and deserve.  Value-added data and better evaluations will help a bit, but it’s still remodeling an old house.

The shift to personal digital learning that will transform American schools in this decade will make it far easier to measure student progress.  But new differentiated and distributed staffing models (i.e., staff of different levels in different locations) will make it more complex to attribute academic gains to specific individuals.

Instead of adding more tests to the old system, state and districts policy makers should focus on reducing barriers to online learning and should use the 10 Elements of the High Quality Digital Learning to create a 3C framework:

Customized learning. Personal digital learning allows each student to vary learning by level, time, location, pace, and increasingly by mode.

Continuous feedback. Personal digital learning provides students and teachers continuous feedback.  A typical fifth grade’s 5,000 keystroke day will provide lots of feedback and building a smart learner profile that helps to customize learning.  It will be easy to measure progress by

Competency-based learning. Personal digital learning allows students to advance based on demonstrated performance.  A competency-based system requires frequent and on-demand assessments.

The 3Cs break the classroom construct for staffing and scheduling and force institutions to deal with individual students.  It enables tiered team staffing with the right people doing the right job, regardless of where they are located.  It will demonstrate that without seat time barriers and with engaging learning experiences most students can learn faster.

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Tom Vander Ark
Tom Vander Ark is author of Smart Parents, Smart Cities and Getting Smart. He is co-founder of Getting Smart and Learn Capital and serves on the boards of 4.0 Schools, eduInnovation, Digital Learning Institute, Imagination Foundation, Charter Board Partners and Bloomboard. Follow Tom on Twitter, @tvanderark.

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