CONTRIBUTORS

Not all evaluations are created equal. How Maine is failing its students

Posted May 25, 2014, at 9:38 a.m.
George Danby

Good morning, readers. I imagine some of you are gearing up to start a work day. Others, say those of you who are hopefully enjoying retirement, were probably in the workforce awhile. Some of you are or have been supervisors. For this reason, I believe most of you are familiar with the concept of evaluation.

Evaluation is usually important and often very necessary. If you’re dining at a restaurant tonight, you deserve its standards of food preparation and sanitation to protect you from becoming deathly ill from salmonella. If your car is in the shop, getting brakes tuned up, you want the job done right, especially if a moose shows up in your headlights.

However, not all evaluations are created equally or suited to their best purpose. Now imagine this: You are being judged on the results of a one-time assessment. Much of what fed into the results was way beyond your control. Nevertheless, your poor showing imperils your ability to hold your job and your firm to stay in business. And the publishing of results adds a strong “shame and blame” element.

How would you feel? Irate? Hold on to that anger. This is what we are doing to Maine schools with the statewide report cards.

Don’t get me wrong. Teachers and administrators want evaluations. They want to know what they are doing well, what they need to do better, and how to improve on both counts. They want to offer all that is sufficient to provide students with the means and milieu to become happy, responsible, productive adults.

Readers, you must see some of the amazing ventures, such as robotics and school gardens, in which schools are investing. What they want, though, is the thorough, rich, nuanced evaluations that will enable their schools and students to soar. The report cards fall very short.

For one thing, they are an alarmingly simplistic measurement of a complicated, complex public education system. A Maine Education Association statement quoted in the May 16 BDN states this eloquently: “Schools, like students, are more than test scores. The governor’s grading system, even with the additional information reported, still doesn’t ask for any input for those who are most involved in student learning, the teachers, parents, principals, and superintendents.”

Never mind the students themselves.

Another major problem is that test scores are influenced by many things beyond the control of any school. Last year we learned that the best predictor of school performance was the relative affluence of its students. Even statistical anomalies can explain some of what we see this year. Most schools got Cs. Standardized tests yield bell-shaped curve results. Some F schools went up, and A schools went down. Consider regression toward the mean, a statistical term that predicts outliers will come come closer to average on the second measurement.

David Silvernail, director of the Maine Education Policy Research Institute, seemed to view the report card results as offering something helpful. “It appeared that people, after they got over the initial shock, they started asking questions. ‘Why is my school not doing so well?’” he told the BDN. That statement demands a follow up question: In what? Quality of education or numbers on the test? This is a crucial distinction.

Deer Isle-Stonington Elementary School Principal Mike Benjamin said last year his teachers and students were devastated by an F. So more classroom time was devoted to test-taking strategies. What we didn’t learn was what was sacrificed to free up this time. Legions of schools are probably engaged in similar survival strategies.

There is a way out. There are solid, valid means of evaluating schools. They include multiple classroom observations by well-trained people, perusal of curriculum and a wide range of student work, and conversations with a wide range of relevant people. They should result in nuanced and individual observations that really give schools something to work with. We already do this when schools are up for re-accreditation.

Readers please join me in looking beyond the standing of the schools in your town to the big picture. Please ask yourself this question. Since we can do better, don’t we owe it to our children, schools and communities?

Julia Emily Hathaway is the vice chair of the Veazie School Committee and a proud mother or three.

 

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