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Labor Voices: Kiss love affair with tests goodbye

Steven Cook

The love affair education policymakers have had with standardized tests seems to be cooling off.

First, the new state superintendent and State Board of Education reduced the amount of time K-12 students will spend on taking standardized tests this school year. And last week, the Legislature passed a new teacher and administrator evaluation bill that reduces the impact of standardized test results on evaluations. While that is only one aspect of the new evaluation process, it is a major step forward in education reform.

Teachers, administrators and experts in the education field have joined forces in calling for a reduction in standardized testing. Recent polling also shows the general public shares that view. In a PDK-Gallup poll conducted this summer, 64 percent of respondents felt there was too much emphasis placed on standardized tests, while 63 percent of public school parents oppose using standardized tests for teacher evaluations. Parents understand that the continual increase in standardized testing decreases the amount of time available for teachers to actually teach. Once seen as the panacea to all perceived deficiencies in public education, policymakers are beginning to understand that standardized tests are not the magic solution to higher student achievement.

Current law requires that 50 percent of a teacher’s evaluation be based on the results of a statewide standardized test. The new legislation (SB 103) reduces that to 25 percent for the next three school years and requires that multiple measures of student growth be used—not just the statewide test. Then in 2018-19, the statewide assessment will account for 20 percent of a teacher’s evaluation, with another 20 percent based on a locally developed growth measure.

In addition to reducing the reliance on standardized test results, the legislation changes the focus of evaluations.

A major deficiency in the current evaluation process is a lack of training in the skills required for administrators to conduct evaluations that provide meaningful and productive feedback to a classroom teacher. That feedback is a critical component to improving instruction techniques and ultimately, student achievement.

The genesis of this new evaluation process began with the Legislature’s creation of the Michigan Council on Educator Effectiveness in 2011—chaired by the University of Michigan’s Dr. Deborah Ball. This body, composed of experts in the education field, issued its report in 2013. Although the legislation passed by the House and Senate does not contain all of the council’s recommendations, it represents a vast improvement over the present evaluation process. It is important to note that in creating the Ball Commission and using its report as a guide to reform, the Legislature acknowledged that experts in the field are invaluable in guiding education reform forward. That too is a change for the better.

Members of the Michigan Education Association who are on the front lines in classrooms across the state are experts in the field. For years, they have been urging policymakers to include them in creating education reforms that work.

The recent reduction in standardized testing and the corresponding reduction in the use of those test results in teacher evaluation are reforms that classroom teachers have been calling on policymakers to adopt. Our members are gratified to see their input result in positive changes in the way public education is provided in Michigan. As the Michigan Department of Education implements the new evaluation process, MEA members look forward to sharing their expertise further to guarantee its success as a strong tool with measurable results.

Steven Cook is president of the Michigan Education Association.

Labor Voices

Labor Voices columns are written on a rotating basis by United Auto Workers President Dennis Williams, Teamsters President James Hoffa, Michigan AFL-CIO President Ron Bieber and Michigan Education Association President Steven Cook.