Skip to content

Do You Understand My Students?

April 14, 2010

In a recent post, I suggested that those who promulgate the use of state test results for teacher evaluation don’t really understand the job I’m supposed to do, and how little the tests relate to my teaching mandate as a California high school English teacher.  Now let’s set aside that problem, and say, for the sake of argument, that the tests are still worthwhile – despite how little their content overlaps with the California Standards.

There are many more problems, beyond test quality.  Do you, the test-loving policy pundits and accountability acolytes, understand my students?  Do you have experience teaching high school English classes?  Have you ever administered the tests, and watched the students taking the tests?  Let me tell you a bit about some of these students  (using some fictional names that might ring a bell for readers who recall advice about walking in someone else’s shoes).

Here’s Jean.  Jean was reading before she started school, polished off the Harry Potter series by the end of first grade, and lives in a home that is the picture of stability and language enrichment.  Now, there are some issues around the concept of “grade level” – but for the sake of argument, let’s assume it’s a valid notion.  According to the tests, Jean was reading at a sixth-grade level in third grade, and beyond high school level by the end of eighth grade.  Jean arrived in my class at the start of ninth grade.  There is nothing I can teach Jean that will improve test scores, because Jean can already ace every state test coming in the next three years.  Kids similar to Jean might make up ten percent of my student load if I’m teaching an honors class.

Meet Burris.  Poor Burris has had a rough time of it, changing schools, in and out of foster care, and probably dealing with some health or cognition issues that interfere with academic growth, but it’s hard to tell because the records aren’t complete and his current guardian is not pursuing any diagnoses or support.  Burris is a nice enough kid, and will put forth a decent effort when the task seems relevant and non-threatening.  One area where Burris is pretty smart though is in understanding schools.  He’s seen enough of them to know that tests are traps: all the schools use tests to find out how much you don’t know yet and to punish you for it by putting you in classes you don’t want to take.  If you can even get him in the room with the test in front of him, he might go through the motions, but he will not risk his best effort only to be trapped by it again.  Now that he’s in tenth grade and new to my school, I have two options.  I can tell Burris he’s wrong about schools and tests and beg him to do his best – and blow any chance I have of gaining his trust, because you can’t make a young adult believe something that runs counter to a decade’s worth of life experience.  Or I can tell Burris I understand his point of view, and maintain a relationship that will yield some results on work other than the tests.  So, while I will maintain high expectations for Burris in the classroom, I honestly can’t expect his test results will mean much.  (Of course, I’ll never see those test results anyways, because they don’t come back during the school year and I won’t be teaching Burris next year).  Kids like Burris might make up another ten percent of my student load.

This is Jeremy.  Everyone loves Jeremy, but he troubles us a bit.  Moody kid.  When everything is going well, Jeremy is the sunshine in your day, and when something goes wrong, Jeremy might brood about it for quite a while.  Which Jeremy will show up on the one day that we administer the state test?  And which Jeremy showed up on that day last year?  How do we know which of his past scores are valid, if any?  If he tested on a bad day last year and a good day this year, I will look like a brilliant teacher.  If the reverse is true, then it can only be assumed that Jeremy forgot his reading skills.  After all, according to the tests, it is possible to be reading at a ninth grade level one year and at an eighth grade level a year later, right?  Kids like Jeremy might make up ten percent of my student load.

Let’s not forget Charles.  My classroom walls hold a considerable amount of his art work.  He draws, paints, doodles and daydreams, but Charles does not do homework.  In fact, he’s so far behind in credits that he’ll be on his way to alternative placement soon.  The vice-principal is not impressed by the fact that Charles reads Russian literature for fun, designs avatars and other digital art for friends in his international muti-player online gaming community, or that he helps take care of an ill parent and an aging grandparent (and I’m not saying those are reasons to keep him out of the alternative program).  Someday, I’m sure I’ll be buying his art, or his books (in electronic format of course), but for now, I’m just begging Charles to turn in some homework.  Charles could probably do exceptionally well on the state tests.  After all, he was in the 99th percentile all the way through seventh grade.  Then his scores plummeted.  Must have been all that Tolstoy he read.  I’m just kidding, of course – Charles freely admits that he bubbles in A for every question.  The test has no consequences for him, no grade attached, no meaning at all.  We can’t coerce Charles into answering questions, nor should we try.  Kids resembling Charles might make up five percent of my student load.

And finally, Walter.  Walter tries his best in school.  He’s an average kid, if such a thing exists.  He earns mostly C’s in school, but at least it’s the kind of C that comes from effort and struggle rather than neglect.  A teacher can do plenty for a student like Walter, by scaffolding and sequencing opportunities for Walter to succeed in listening, speaking, writing and reading.  Very little of that will be covered on the test, and Walter is quite a nervous kid – doesn’t like to stand out.  When he notices that most of the students around him are finished taking their tests, Walter will rush through the final questions.  Walter also stays up late doing homework, and feels tired pretty quickly when working on tedious, meaningless tests, so sometimes, he gives up early anyways.  Students who resemble Walter in some significant way often make up twenty percent of my student load.

See the problem?  I’ll even give you a pass on whether or not the test is any good, but you can’t rely on the scores of at least half of my students to tell you anything meaningful about my teaching.  And even if you could, experts will tell you that unless you randomly assign my students, and give me enough of them, there’s a significant sampling problem in evaluating me based on the test scores.

But really, it’s worse that that.  Children aren’t standardized, and they aren’t reliable.  That’s what makes teaching so wonderful.  It also makes policy-making rather difficult, when you don’t understand children.

10 Comments leave one →
  1. April 14, 2010 8:29 am

    Great blog, David. Should be required reading for every policy-maker who thinks that designing tests to measure what kids know is a piece of cake–and that the results from the tests are far more reliable than grades, teacher commentary, graduation rates, etc.

    There isn’t much teachers can do, once kids hit the age of reason and determination, to “make” them care about testing. Pep rallies and threats don’t work. The only reason a HS student will perform well on a test is because there is intrinsic motivation, a vision of a good future, and sufficient confidence in his own skills.

    This blog deserves wide exposure. Nice work.

  2. April 17, 2010 12:53 pm

    Based on the names you chose, I bet there is also Arthur–whose strict and oppressive home life and likely cognitive and social challenges inhibit his ability to perform, despite his best intentions. Putting pressure on him would be a sin.

    • David B. Cohen permalink*
      April 17, 2010 8:44 pm

      Ah yes, I forgot about Arthur. We might also consider that his testing issues would give a test-score-obssessed teacher or school little incentive to engage him, though his generosity and his concern for his neighbors suggest he has much to contribute.

  3. April 21, 2010 5:26 pm

    Really fantastic. Thanks for writing this, David. I’ll be sharing it every chance I get.

    • David B. Cohen permalink*
      April 21, 2010 8:50 pm

      Thanks for your kind response – and come back for Part Two!

  4. April 22, 2010 9:07 pm

    As an elementary teacher, I see younger versions of the students you describe. Here are two more:
    Thuy is Vietnamese. She is in the 5th grade and she came to our school in 1st grade when she didn’t speak one word of English. She has made remarkable progress in her ESL classes and is very bright. She is starting to contribute in class. Thuy’s family went to Vietnam over winter break. The problem is that they stayed for two months. Thuy came back to school the end of February just in time for our state tests in March. Two months of no school in a non English speaking setting put Thuy behind for her state tests.

    We have Gerald, a third grader, who has trouble accepting responsibility for his actions. When he is engaged in class, he does fairly well. If he gets an answer wrong or if his behavior is corrected for any reason, he shuts down completely. In his mind, he is punishing the teacher who corrected him against his will by sulking and not participating in the remainder of the lesson. In reality, he is depriving himself from learning the lesson at hand. As a result, Gerald is not prepared for the state tests and he struggles through them, getting more and more frustrated having to sit and bubble in answers for 2 hours.

    I’m sure there are a host of other student profiles that your readers could come up with. Thank you for articulating your thoughts so well.

    • David B. Cohen permalink*
      April 23, 2010 1:20 pm

      I appreciate your examples. There are people who would say those individual stories shouldn’t count too much or cause much concern – every teacher might have some stories like that, and the “best” teachers will still come out ahead in the scores. The problem – and it’s not one I noticed myself, but one that’s pointed out by researchers with more expertise in data and measurement – is that we’re dealing with small sample sizes. Your one student who went away for two months could represent 3-5% of your student load in an elementary classroom. Maybe over the course of a career things even out, but in any given year, random chance might give you three of these students, while your colleague down the hall in a given year might luck out with no issues like this. I fear the consequences of giving anyone too much power to draw serious conclusions based on those kinds of random variations beyond our control.


  1. Do You Understand My School? (Part One) « InterACT
  2. 2010: InterACT in Review « InterACT
  3. VAM Nauseum: Bleeding the Patient « InterACT

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: