Skeptophilia (skep-to-fil-i-a) (n.) - the love of logical thought, skepticism, and thinking critically. Being an exploration of the applications of skeptical thinking to the world at large, with periodic excursions into linguistics, music, politics, cryptozoology, and why people keep seeing the face of Jesus on grilled cheese sandwiches.

Monday, June 27, 2016

Score card

It's the last week of June, and I just wrapped up another school year.  My 29th overall, which still seems kind of impossible to me until I realize that a child of a former student graduated from high school this year.  Then it seems pretty real, along with a realization of "Good lord, I'm getting old."

So I've been at this for a long time, and with, I think, some measure of success.  Which is why I read my letter from the school district awarding me my numerical grade for the school year with a mixture of amusement and irritation.

I won't leave you hanging; I got an 81.  I got an 84 last year and a 91 the year before that, so according to the state rating scale, I'm becoming incrementally less competent.  It can't, of course, be because the metric is flawed, that the three grades are comparing different assessments of different students put together in different ways.  No, in the minds of the geniuses at NYSED, this number means something fundamental about my effectiveness as a teacher.

In fact, that's what an 81 gets you; a designation of "Effective."  You have to have a 92 to be "Highly Effective."  If you're below 75, you're "Developing."  I'm glad I didn't land in that category.  If after 29 years at this game, I'm not "Developed," I don't hold out much hope.

What amused me most about all of this nonsense was the paragraph that said, and I quote:
Please remember that your scores are confidential and should not be shared in any way.  In accordance with state regulations, the parent of a child in your class may request your composite score and rating as well as that of the principal.  For your own protection, teachers are strongly discouraged from sharing their own scores outside of the district process.
Which is a recommendation I'm happy to toss to the wind (along with the aforementioned letter).  If we keep our scores and the way they were generated under wraps, it allows the statistics gurus at the State Education Department to keep everyone under the impression that they actually know what they're doing.

[image courtesy of the Wikimedia Commons]

Let me get specific, here.  My 91 two years ago was based upon the scores of my Critical Thinking classes and my AP Biology class.  Critical Thinking is an elective, and while the day-to-day work is difficult (requiring a lot of thinking, surprisingly) the material that is suitable for an exam at the end of the year is actually quite easy.  So my students performed brilliantly, as I would expect.  Additionally, that year's AP class was an extremely talented group who knocked the final exam clear out of the park.

Fast forward to last year.  My score last year was based on a combination of my Regents (Introductory) Biology class and my AP Biology classes.  Because of a strange policy of piling students who are classified as learning disabled into the same class, last year's Regents Biology was half composed of students who have been identified with learning disabilities.  Many of these students were hard-working and wonderful to teach, but it's unsurprising that that part of my grade went down.  My two AP classes last year were a friendly, cheerful lot who also happened to be somewhat motivationally challenged, and who by the end of the school year were far more invested in playing Cards Against Humanity than they were in studying for my final.  So that accounts for the remainder of the decline in my score.

This year, my score was a composite once again between Regents and AP Biology, but this time my Regents classes were among the most talented, hardest-working freshman and sophomores I've ever had.  My AP class was small but outstanding, but because of the way the scoring is done, they would have to score on my (very difficult) final exam higher than a target determined by their score on the (far easier) Regents Biology exam for me to have that student's score count in my favor.  On the part of my assessment that came from my AP class, I got a grand total of three points of of a possible twenty -- mostly because of students who got an 81 or 82 on an exam where their target was 85.

So my three scores in three consecutive years have absolutely nothing to do with one another, and (I would argue) nothing whatsoever to do with my competence as a teacher.  But because there's no idea that is so stupid that someone can't tinker with it to make it even stupider, next year the State Department of Education has informed us that we'll be assessed a different way.  Our joy at hearing this pronouncement was short-lived, because once we heard how they're going to score us, we all rolled our eyes so hard it looked like the email was inducing grand mal seizures.

Next year, unless over half of your students are in classes that take a mandated state exam at the end of the year, 50% of your score will be based on an average of the "Big Five" exams, the ones that all students have to take to graduate -- English, US History, Algebra I, Global History, and Biology.   (The other half, fortunately, will be based on evaluation by an administrator.)  If you think you can't have read that correctly, you did; the half of the high school band teacher's grade (for example) will come from students' scores on exams that she had absolutely nothing to do with.  Even for me, who teaches one of the "big five" -- less than half of my students next year will be in Regents Biology, so I'll be getting the composite score, too.

But don't worry!  Because students mostly score pretty well on these exams, and the score will be calculated using the time-honored statistical technique of averaging averages, we'll all look like we're brilliant.  So in effect, they took an evaluation metric that was almost completely meaningless, and changed it so as to make it completely meaningless.

Because that's clearly how you want an evaluation system to work.

All of this, it must be said, comes from the drive toward "data-driven instruction" -- converting every damn thing we do into numbers.  Couple this with a push toward tying those numbers to tenure, retention, and merit pay, along with a fundamental distrust of the teachers themselves, and we now have a system that is so far removed from any measure of reliability that it's almost funny.

Almost.  Because NYSED, and other state educational agencies, look upon all of this as being deadly serious.  It's all very well for me -- a veteran teacher of nearly three decades who is looking to retire in the next few years -- to laugh about this.  I wouldn't be laughing if I were a new teacher, however, and I'd be laughing even less if I were a college student considering education as a profession.

In fact, it'd make me look closely at what other career options I had.

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