Tuesday, January 06, 2015

You Keep Using That Word

Yesterday was our first day back after winter break and we had a faculty meeting (it was one of our few non-student-contact days). We heard from teachers, our principal and our superintendent (which is a nice mix, although I feel compelled to point out that there was at least one important group we didn't hear from: students). A variety of topics were addressed, but I think it's fair to say that "accountability" was a major theme.

Both my principal and my superintendent addressed standardized testing and, to be clear, it was very nice to hear from both of them that they believe we are testing too much, and that they are both working in the political arena to try to convince the state to reduce the amount of required testing. But I found it interesting that they both repeated almost exactly several sentences that I hear many folks in education use: "I'm not against accountability. I think accountability is important. We need to be held accountable to make sure we're doing our jobs."

Every time I hear phrases like those I find myself thinking of a line from The Princess Bride,
You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.
Google gives me this definition, which I guess is as good as any. (I also find the use-over-time graph very interesting.)

Of course, since it defines accountability in terms of being accountable, we have to dig a bit deeper.

So accountability is being responsible for and justifying our actions or decisions. In our current environment, and the way that most folks in the education discussion seem to use it, that means using test scores to "justify" that what we're doing with our students is "working." Therefore we need some amount of standardized testing to prove that we're being successful, to hold us accountable. That's wrong.

The problem isn't so much with their understanding of the word accountable, it's with their assumptions of who we are accountable to and what we are accountable for. We are not accountable to the test, or to the state, or even to the curriculum - we are (or at least should be) accountable to our students. We are (or should be) responsible for our actions and decisions in relation to our students' wants and needs - what they care about, and test scores don't measure that. Even for folks who believe that learning is mastering a fixed body of knowledge and being able to regurgitate that on command, test scores wouldn't hold us "accountable." Test scores don't measure the quality of our actions and decisions while interacting with our students. And, if you don't believe that mastering a fixed body of knowledge and regurgitating it on command is "learning," then using test scores for "accountability" is even more ludicrous.

Test scores don't hold me accountable as a teacher; they don't make sure I'm "doing my job". Standing up in front of (or beside) students each and every day, meeting their needs and helping them find out what they care about, and then helping them learn more about that, that holds me accountable. As long as educators continue to agree and reinforce that test scores are the way to keep us accountable, we're never going to make any progress. It's inconceivable.

1 comment:

  1. Karl,
    I decided to respond to part of what your are saying in this post. Most of the standardized tests that we give at the elementary level are not asking students to master a "fixed body of knowledge"and regurgitate "it on command." For example, while the ELA PARCC/CMAS is a long ways from perfect yet, a big part of it is about asking students to read, comprehend, and then write in response. I took some practice tests and while the multiple choice left much to be desired, I think these tests are moving in the right direction. Likewise with Math - they give students complex problems with numerous steps and ask students to solve the problem and explain their thinking.

    And as far as accountability, for many years SOME schools bragged about how their top students performed but lost sight of some of their students who couldn't read. Testing changed that. As the principal at an elementary school, our focus was on both - ensuring all students grew/were challenged, AND working to help the students who were below grade level in to "catch-up, so that they can become proficient. It matters whether students are proficient in reading or not in elementary school (its a predictor of life success, etc.) and we need to know if they are behind so we can help them. Testing has exposed some problems and focused us on this issue - we now have the data. I am proud of how we progress-monitored students' reading growth. Over 4 years we increased the percentage of students who were proficient as measured by state tests from the mid 60's to the mid 80's. Because we held ourselves accountable, more students were grade level readers. . .

    Did teachers care before? Yes they did . . . But state testing has helped to focus us on these dual goals (growth and proficiency). I think accountability is not something that is being done to us and our students, it is something we embrace as we work to help our students learn to read and write and think. ?????