Assessing the tests

December 10, 1997|By Andrew McBee

ASSESSMENT is all the rage these days among public school administrators, from lowly principals up to State Superintendent Nancy Grasmick.

We already have the Maryland School Performance Assessment Program (MSPAP), which measures each school -- attendance, promotion rate and student scores on state functional tests -- in an attempt to ensure that students are successful.

Today, the state Board of Education will vote on whether to require students to pass a series of tough tests during high school to earn diplomas. This Grasmick proposal is presented as ''setting high standards'' for our students.

This obsession with assessment indicates a complete lack of faith in teachers. If the state Department of Education is successful in linking tests to a high school diploma, it will have effectively stripped teachers of any power of discretion in the classroom.

No longer will an English teacher who loves poetry be able to lead a writing workshop with his class; if he doesn't make sure his students can define Romanticism, he'll be shown the door.

Tar and feather

Never mind that a newly published novel would inspire classes of reluctant readers to get hooked on a book; if they can't identify the themes of ''The Great Gatsby,'' they'll fail 11th-grade English, and their teacher, presumably, will be tarred and feathered.

Already, pilot tests are being given to Baltimore area high school students -- and the resulting change is evident.

As a biology teacher in one school recently told her students: ''We don't have time to do experiments. I have to cover the material on the test.'' So much for learning to think like a scientist.

Teachers are already forced to use restrictive lesson plans. As a result, spontaneity and creativity -- traits of good teachers -- are out the window.

Using such lesson plans, teachers generally must announce to the students the objectives for each class and write them on the board. The students then engage in some ''information-related activity,'' preferably working in small groups -- ''cooperative learning.''

At the end of each class, the teacher must assess how well each student has attained the objectives, with a quiz or test or writing assignment. The class should be ''student-centered,'' with the teacher serving more as a facilitator than as an instructor.

There's nothing particularly wrong with this ''ideal'' lesson plan; in fact, it is based on sound research about how kids can learn in schools.

What's wrong is the current tendency among administrators to insist on its adoption.

Administrators are so wedded to fixed models of cooperative learning and assessment that they ignore the essential ingredient of teaching and learning -- genuine, respectful communication between teacher and student.

A school is not a factory with a ''product'' that can be controlled by strategies adopted from the corporate world or by constant assessment of results.

Connect people

A school works when the people in it connect; when students and teachers can talk and listen to each other and build a consensus about what's important -- when students care. Teachers are, in general, the caring sort, but the state Department of Education's message to them is discouraging.

You may deeply love your subject, you may be wildly enthusiastic about sharing your knowledge and its application with students, your brain may be bursting with strategies for teaching what you know, but none of that matters.

What matters is that your students pass a test written by assessment experts that will determine how well you are doing your job. What matters is that you follow the plan.

So whatever natural talents, creative energies or unique insights a particular teacher may possess -- and whatever the interests, curiosities or motivations of a particular student -- all are swept aside so that principals, superintendents and board members can be sure they are measuring exactly what is going on in Maryland's classrooms. Never mind that what is going on has been rendered deadly dull for all concerned.

If state officials are so anxious to reshape our school systems in the image of corporations, they should notice that communication in successful businesses flows both ways, from the top down and from the bottom up.

In Maryland's educational bureaucracy, however, all important decisions and policies are handed down by administrators who are, for the most part, completely out of touch with teachers and students.

For this reason, all the assessment procedures that exist will never make a significant impact on the problems that beset our schools: The ''dumbing down'' of curriculum, poor attendance, high dropout rates and students whose behavior is out of control.

The irony is that the real experts on these problems -- the people who combat them every school day of the year -- are not even trusted to decide what will occur in their own classrooms.

Andrew McBee taught in area public and private schools for 18 years. He writes from Baltimore.

Pub Date: 12/10/97


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