Wait, Isn’t Norm-Referencing Bad?


I was lucky enough to be in a day-long session last month about assessment and one of the statistical models that is used to measure the value-added by teachers.  Before I start to vent, I want to admit that my statistical background is sketchy at best.  I am also in a particularly frustrated place due to the impact that these models play in the determination of teacher “effectiveness”.

During the presentation, one of the most fundamental aspects of state-wide standardized test analysis was explained to my group and I was floored.  The metric that is used to determine if my students have shown growth (or academic improvement) is not their absolute score on the test.  It is their percentile rank that is expected to improve.  Students who improve at the same rate as the average in the state will have a growth index of zero.

This is akin to lining up all of the students in my state according to their scores.  If this line of students all move five steps (or fifty steps!) forward, they have all made improvement.  By the simplest definition, they have all learned.

But, in the world of high-stakes testing, since none of the students moved “up in line” or improved relative to others, they have not improved.  As a teacher, I have failed them.  Even if they made five hundred steps of forward progress, their growth index is zero.

Perhaps the biggest reason that this frustrates me, is that classroom teachers have been taught for decades that norm-referenced assessments have many weaknesses.  These assessments present students and teachers with a “moving target” since success depends on the performance of others.  Grading on the curve is widely accepted as unfair assessment practice.

Yet, this is exactly what we are doing at the level of standardized tests and teacher effectiveness.  In the interest of continuous improvement, the bar moves from year to year. But, the result is shifting sands beneath our feet that rob educators of the ability to anchor their instructional goals to something concrete.  We are told, “Just keep teaching them the best you can and you’ll do fine.”

But, if large groups of students do better, my evaluation will be negatively affected. In the world of norm-referenced standardized testing, a rising tide can actually sink many ships.  If we were pessimistic about the anti-collaborative effects of standardized testing before this realization, we should be downright fearful that as more educators realize the way that our effectiveness is calculated, corruption will become much more common and teachers will begin to make choices that are not in the best interest of students.

Am I overdoing it on the gloom and doom?  Let me know in the comments.


How Teaching Prepared Me For The Zombie Apocalypse

zombieThese days we live every minute looking over our shoulders for zombies.  The undead are just a fact of life.

When It began, some folks struggled to adapt to the status quo.  They lacked survival skills, or weren’t vigilant enough.  They trusted too easily and tried too hard to work together.  They lacked the ruthlessness that a life on the run demands.  But, not me.

You see, I was a teacher.

In the days before the Zombie Apocalypse, I taught science at a public middle school in North Carolina.  When the federal and state agencies adopted “merit-based teacher assessment”, linking our evaluations to high-stakes standardized tests taken by students once a year, few predicted the effect that it would have.  Sure, many of the “reformers” complained that it would destroy our schools, but no one listened.

They warned that teachers would shed their collaborative nature, and become cutthroat mercenaries.  We would hoard lessons ideas and supplies to keep a leg up on the others in our building.  We would fight tooth and nail to teach the students with the fewest obstacles to learning, reasoning that we can’t help anyone if we don’t have a job.  And you can’t keep your job if you don’t get those scores up.

The reformers predicted that it wouldn’t take long for the cheating to begin.  Under tremendous pressure to show that all of the work that we did in our classrooms had “value”, teachers would start teaching to the test and eventually just feed answers to the students on test day.  No reasonable educator would put her career in the hands of little Johnny and whether he ate breakfast that morning or felt like doing his best on test day.

Days before the virus broke out and brains became a delicacy, an intrepid education blogger posted his “How to Succeed as a Teacher” list.  It was supposed to be a joke.

  1. Don’t share your best ideas with ANYONE!
  2. When forming teams, make sure that there is always someone slower than you.
  3. Hoard and steal.
  4. Trust no one.
  5. Don’t help those who are struggling, as you will end up suffering their fate.
  6. Do whatever it takes to survive.

It turns out that these are the same skills that you need to escape from hungry zombies.  Lucky for me, I was trained to be ruthless as a public school teacher before the epidemic.  I feel bad for those suckers with “21st Century Skills” like collaboration and soft skills like compassion.  They’re just zombie food now.

photo credit: caliopedreams via photopin cc