Column: Standardized tests dull learning

Paula Herbart

Last week began the soul-crushing season of standardized test taking in Michigan schools. The overemphasis on “bubble tests” dulls the love of learning for both students and educators. And it’s about to get worse.

The overemphasis on “bubble tests” dulls the love of learning for both students and educators. And it’s about to get worse, Herbart writes.

Starting this fall, “student growth” and standardized test scores will account for 40 percent of educators’ evaluations, up from 25 percent currently — a move that will ratchet up pressure to spend precious classroom time doing “test prep” and administering more tests.

Ask parents — and employers — what they want for students at school, and they’ll point to tasks that develop skills, thinking and creativity. Open-ended experiments. Exploratory reading and writing. Music, art, physical education. Real-world problem-solving using math and design thinking.

That’s also why educators enter the profession. Teachers hope to awaken children’s curiosity and develop their capacity to think, solve, and create. However, the values of parents and educators are not reflected in changes to our state’s teacher evaluation system launched three years ago.

Some aspects of the new evaluation system are demoralizing teachers and discouraging innovation in classroom practice — including the emphasis on test scores. That’s why MEA is working on bipartisan legislative fixes that need parental support to move in the Legislature.

The tide of public opinion has turned on the “test and punish” method of helping schools — the idea that we could starve and punish schools into eliminating achievement gaps and helping students succeed.

Studies have shown student test scores are not an accurate means of evaluating teacher quality. As a result, many states are reducing or eliminating the role of standardized test scores in evaluations as permitted by the new federal education law, the “Every Student Succeeds Act.”

Rep. Aaron Miller last month introduced House Bill 5707, which would cap the percentage of a teacher’s evaluation based on test-score-measured student growth at the current 25 percent.

Two other bills have been introduced to address additional flaws in the evaluation process. HB 5688 would prohibit an evaluator from conducting an evaluation on a family member — a clear conflict the current law allows. And HB 5687 would bar school districts from setting artificial limits on the number of teachers who may be rated “highly effective.”

Other problems exist, but these bills represent a good-faith start on improving how Michigan teachers are evaluated.

Michigan Teacher of the Year Luke Wilcox, an East Kentwood math teacher and MEA member, says fixes are needed. “Tying the evaluation to a high-stakes test does nothing to improve a teacher’s performance,” Wilcox told a gathering of business and education leaders in March.

That echoes a common lament I heard from educators as I’ve traveled the state: “More testing means less teaching.”

Over the last decade, legislators have enacted many failed changes that have harmed public education, including increased testing, curriculum mandates, cuts in school funding and a dramatic increase in the number and funding of for-profit, corporate charter schools.

What are the results? Lower student achievement and a worsening teacher shortage. Historic numbers of new teachers are leaving the classroom within the first five years, while colleges of education report enrollment declines of up to 50 percent.

The vast majority of those “reforms” were enacted on a strictly partisan basis. But parents and educators have had enough of partisan attacks. We’re standing up. We are demanding support for our students and schools, and our philosophy is gaining traction.

Paula Herbart 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 Paula Herbart.