Assessing Assessment — Twenty Years Later — Will We Ever Trust Teachers?

Nearly two decades ago, in July, 1989, I was invited to give an address at the Philadelphia Board of Education about the role of assessment in my teaching. I was the only teacher invited to present to the assembled group of university professors, outside consultants and school district administrators. Grant Wiggins was the the outside consultant, brought to Philadelphia by The Philadelphia Schools Collaborative, headed by Michelle Fine and Jan Somerville. This meeting took place in the incipient months before the launching of an unprecedented high school reform movement which lasted through the first 6 years of the next decade and affected the lives of hundreds of teachers and tens of thousands of students in Philadelphia. That work is documented in Chartering Urban School Reform edited by Michelle Fine and Is This English by Bob Fecho and many other places.

What I find so compelling about this particular address is the connection to today and the relationship among teachers, curriculum and assessment in the wake of No Child Left Behind. I believe that we will lose an entire generation of teachers along with the students they could have reached if policy makers, elected officials and school and community leaders don’t engage teachers in a meaningful and substantive dialogue about how best to assess their students’ learning.

I know how powerful such engagement can be. I have had the privilege of living through a time when teachers’ knowledge and experience did matter – when we were invited to the table, for our questions to be heard, and our for our continued learning to be supported. The Philadelphia Schools Collaborative supported by a grant from the Pew Charitable Trusts provided Philadelphia high school teachers with the necessary professional development to become critical inquirers into our own practice and enabled us to work collaboratively with each other, our students and their parents to create schools and programs that challenged everyone to reach beyond even our own expectations.

I think one of the saddest consequences of the current testocracy is the limited goals we set for our children and the way the pursuit of those goals impact what happens in the classroom, particularly for the children of the poor and least powerful people in our country. School becomes a tense and unpleasant place with learning reduced to “skill-building” — where children never have a chance to explore the world, raise their own question nor make meaning for themselves.

I could go into a whole Freirean riff here about the difference between a banking model (where the value comes from the outside and is inserted into the child) and a mining model ( where the precious metal is on the inside – potential needing to be mined.) Or I could wax poetic about the need for all children to find their own questions and become the makers of meaning in their own lives — fighting against definitions placed on them from the outside that shutter their curiosity and squash their future.

But I won’t.

Instead, I will pledge to continue to fight the good fight. I will do whatever I can to gather and tell the stories of the students who participated in the Philadelphia Young Playwrights Program ( which I discuss in the address below) and who were educated in Crossroads, the school within a school that was founded in 1991 and in which I taught until 1998, whose seeds were sown in this day in July when I laid down the challenge to those who were present to trust the teachers and the potential that was unleashed when they did.

School District of Philadelphia
Board of Education
July, 1989

address by Marsha Pincus
English Teacher
Simon Gratz High School

I am very pleased to be here this morning, addressing you, the university people, the outside consultants, the policy- makers and the administrators, as a classroom teacher. I am an English teacher at Simon Gratz High School and I have been teaching English in several different schools since 1974. This is the first time that I have been asked to speak about my classroom practices to such a group. The underlying assumption is that I have something to say about those practices.

But that assumption is not always made by those who make policy, institute curricula, or design standardized tests. In fact, the opposite assumption is often made– that the teacher has little to say about her own practices. What she needs is a curriculum guide which spells out exactly how and when she’ll teach what. Or a basal reading program which is teacher-proof. Or a standardized test that any fool, including a classroom teacher, can administer and score.

When Michelle Fine asked me to speak about how standardized assessment affects what happens in my classroom, I began to think about how my attitude towards standardized testing has changed over the past 15 years. As a new teacher, I used to have nightmares about the California Achievement Test. I spent much of my time and energy preparing my students for the test. I did lots of skill work and reading comprehension exercises- cause and effect worksheets in a multiple choice format. In many ways, the CAT gave me the framework for designing my English program. The test determined what and how I taught. Period.

As I became more experienced, gaining confidence and competence, the importance of the CAT receded. I could measure my success or failure in other ways– by looking at student writing, by listening to student discussion, by observing student performance. With the advent of the standardized curriculum and the accompanying mid-term and final exams, I was hopeful. Here at last I thought would be a test related to what I was teaching. However, the new test ( at least the English portion) turned out to be very similar to the CAT – multiple choice format, reading comprehension questions, no context. It still didn’t seem to me to measure what I was teaching or how I was teaching.

I understand that alternative ways of assessing students will involve more work for teachers than the traditional multiple choice test. I understand the lure of the quick fix, especially for already overburdened secondary teachers who teach 165 students. Back in 1985, Dr. Gerri Newman came to address the faculty at Sayre Junior High School. She spoke eloquently about the writing process and the writing across the curriculum project. She offered ways for teachers to integrate writing into all aspects of the junior high curriculum. After she completed her presentation, our next speaker took the floor- the Scan-Tron salesman who was hawking a machine which graded teacher-made multiple choice and true false tests. He was even throwing in a year’s supply of answer sheets — free.

I do not blame the teachers for wanting that machine. I do not blame them for wondering what Dr. Newman’s presentation had to do with them and their discipline. After all, there is no writing on the science or math or history mid-term. Come to think of it, there’s no writing on the English mid-term either.

The test not only determines what we teach, it determines how we teach it.

I read with enthusiasm the description of a performance based oral history project. But I wonder. How does this project relate to the curriculum? Who is valuing the process of having students gather and interpret information? And what happened to Chapters 1-28 of the history textbook? Such a project seems incompatible with a curriculum which stresses memorization of names, dates, and battles. Such a project seems incompatible with a curriculum which does not allow for and respect differences in culture, race, class or gender.

For the past two years, I have had the privilege of working with the Philadelphia Young Playwrights Festival. This program trains teachers in the process of playwriting and pairs each participating teacher with a professional playwright who works with the students in intensive theatre workshops. My students have learned about drama from the inside out. They have collaborated with one another in improvisational workshops. They have written and rewritten scenes. They have produced, directed and acted in each other’s plays. They have published an anthology of their work. And for the past two years their efforts have been validated by the fact that five of them have won in the city- wide competition. One play has already been performed at Temple University’s Tomlinson Theatre and two others will be performed this spring. In addition, my students attended five plays at the Annenberg Theatre, saw at least six professional productions at our school and read at least seven plays including works by Sophocles, Shakespeare, Miller, Ibsen, and August Wilson, Charles Fuller and Ntozake Shange.

When the Standardized tests came along, I certainly wasn’t worried that I hadn’t covered the Drama part of the curriculum.

Yet, what my students encountered on that test was an excerpt (about 25 lines) from a turn of the century British play—- plunked down on that exam with absolutely no context —- followed by multiple choice questions about the vocabulary in the dialogue — a dialogue which was very alien to dialogue that they were familiar with. My students, the award winning playwrights, did poorly on the drama portion of this test.

Again, the test not only determines what we teach, it determines how we teach it. Surely I will teach drama one way if my goal is to have my students see drama as a living breathing art form with a history and aesthetic tradition – an art form they too have the ability to create. I will teach it another way if my goal is to have my students see drama as just another text to explicate.
We cannot look at assessment without considering the content of the curriculum and we cannot consider curriculum without examining how we view our purpose as educators. This became clear to me when I participated in both the School-Wide and On-Site Writing Assessments. Initially, our task was to look at and assess student writing. But we found that our task was far more complex. Because we discovered that in order to assess student writing, we need criteria. And in order to have criteria, we need a purpose. And in order to express that purpose in a way that is meaningful to our students, we must design our assignments carefully. Then we must create the context and build the framework in which the student can carry out the assignment.

So, while our ostensible purpose was to assess student writing, we did much much more. We reviewed our own practices and analyzed the underlying assumptions informing those practices. We asked ourselves questions such as: Why did we select the reading material that we did? Why did we expect every completed assignment to look the same? Why did we not allow or encourage revision? Why did we only focus on the weaknesses of students’ papers? All of these questions and more were raised by teachers in these workshops. As we continue to grapple with these questions and find the answers, we will begin to change our practice.

This type of assessment is costly and time-consuming. But what is our alternative? To go back to trying to design a teacher-proof test? To once again impose the context from the outside? If the test determines what and how teachers teach, shouldn’t the teachers help determine what and how the test will test?

Unless, of course, you don’t trust the teachers.

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