LOGANSPORT — I’m a retired educator. Like many other old-timers in my profession, I am proud of my work. I hope that my pride is justified. My career spanned over 40 years of effort to help young people learn. I wish I could say that all of my students learned everything they were supposed to, but I know they didn’t.
I can’t even claim sole responsibility for what they did learn. Other people also contributed to their success, chiefly – but not exclusively – fellow educators and parents. Ultimately, my students, themselves, deserved most of the credit for their achievements.
We are just completing the spring testing cycle for Indiana students, both public and nonpublic. A few weeks ago, I read Lindsey Ziliak’s article about how well our local students are doing on the ISTEP examinations. I read it with a degree of caution. The article itself is certainly appropriate. We all want to know how our kids are doing. At the moment, however, the answer is no more dependable than predictions of who will win the presidency this November.
The only thing we can depend on is that school principals will express optimism. What else should we expect? Every good salesperson knows that you can’t sell much without being enthusiastic. That’s the way to motivate people to buy a product. It’s also the way to motivate students to put forth their best efforts on ISTEP.
When I was a principal, news people also asked me how my students were doing before the ISTEP results were available. An upbeat, positive answer was mandatory. Anything less would discourage the students I wanted to encourage. A football coach who was having a bad season once told me, “I tell the players and fans more about my hopes than my expectations.” That wasn’t a bad strategy. Sometimes I have used it myself.
The only drawback to the strategy is its uncertainty. Coaches have at least some hard data before the season ends. Principals don’t. They must base their hopes on very subjective evidence: their personal observations and feedback from teachers and students.
I have often expressed my belief that standardized tests are not always the best way to measure student achievement. External factors can have a negative impact on the test results. Errors by test administrators and evaluators are two such factors.
I was a high school German teacher. One year, my students scored extremely poorly on a national German examination. Why? The test administrator inadvertently skipped a major section of the exam, making their scores much lower than their usual grades. These were excellent students. Many of them later qualified for advanced placement in college German. I think it’s safe to assume that their test results did not accurately measure their knowledge and skills.
After I retired, I worked for a temp agency that evaluated students’ essays on standardized tests. We read essays of students from several states. (Indiana was not one of them.) More than 100 evaluators were hired. They were all college graduates, but most were not educators. I worked there for several months and only met two other licensed teachers.
We were all given rubrics and a brief explanation of how to use them. Many still did not understand, including some of the supervisors. I taught in Kentucky for two years. There, only certified teachers evaluated the essays. Those evaluations were much more reliable.
I am not opposed to standardized tests. They are a valuable source of information that we can use to help our students and improve our schools. However, we can overestimate their importance.
William Ouchi, a highly recognized management theorist, described an encounter with a Japanese client who couldn’t seem to focus on the purpose of their meeting. Why? He was worried about the kindergarten admission test that his child was taking back home in Japan. He considered admission to that very selective kindergarten crucial to his child’s future success in school.
The cultural differences between Japan and the U.S. are huge. They make it hard for us to understand the concerns of Ouchi’s client. Kindergarten admission tests may seem absurd to us, but are they any more absurd than using standardized tests to evaluate educators and schools with little consideration of other criteria?
• Mark Heinig Jr. of Kokomo is a retired Indiana teacher and principal, and frequent contributor to the Kokomo Tribune. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.