Do low test scores really reflect bad teaching?

Discussion in 'Secondary Education Archives' started by miatorres, Jan 27, 2007.

  1. miatorres

    miatorres Comrade

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    Jan 27, 2007

    Imagine you teaching middle school or high school math or English in an area with a high dropout rate. If students started out the year with low scores and end with low scores, does that really reflect bad teaching? Do you agree or disagree that it is because the teachers don't do their job?

    It seems like some students are so reluctant that no matter what the teacher does, it does not matter.
     
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  3. logan_morgan

    logan_morgan Rookie

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    Jan 27, 2007

    Pet peeve here! Our school board has set goals for each level that test scores will improve by a certain percentage each year - not for a certain group of students but for the school. So basically, if I get an unusually bright group one year that scores well, the next year I am expected to raise test scores by 5-10%. My phrase is, "I can't make mahogany furniture out of balsa wood."

    You can do anything and everything possible to educate kids, but sometimes, for whatever reason, it doesn't take. There are so many reasons that kids don't succeed at the middle and high school levels - family, drugs, peer pressures, low motivation, lack of prerequisite skills. Some kids who struggle but manage to keep up in elementary school just get further and further behind until they get buried in the upper grades.

    You do your best and that's all you can do. There are bad teachers out there - we all know at least one and I'd bet we all had at least one. Often we succeed in spite of it. The fact that students don't succeed shouldn't fall solely on the shoulders of the teachers because these kids are complex individuals, with complex issues. There is no one reason why kids don't succeed - there are as many reasons as there are personalities.
     
  4. MissFrizzle

    MissFrizzle Virtuoso

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    Jan 27, 2007

    This drives me up a wall. Yes, there are bad teachers out there, just as in any profession, but to put all the responsiblilty on the teacher if a child fails is just ridiculous! It's the teacher's job to faciliatate learning and it's the students job to actually put in effort and help themselves. We are teachers not magicians.
     
  5. Aliceacc

    Aliceacc Multitudinous

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    I think that a continued history of bad test scored indicates something. If your kids, year after year, fail to meet certain benchmarks, then either your teaching is off target or the test is.

    But an isolated group of kids? No, it doesn't indicate a whole lot.
     
  6. TeacherGroupie

    TeacherGroupie Moderator

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    Jan 27, 2007

    Alice's implicit point is a very important one: it's vital to know what population you're looking at, to look at it in a sophisticated enough way to get valid results, and then to interpret the results properly. Unfortunately, way too many teachers go glazed-eyed when presented with statistics and deal out of the discussion, with the result that the tests, methods of administration, analyses, and interpretation are left in the hands of people who either don't understand what education is really about or who have ideological axes to grind. And the latter are the people who come in and assert that THE CAUSE of low scores is bad teaching. If teachers are going to combat that kind of thinking, they've got to get much more involved in the processes of assessment and interpretation, and they've got to learn some logic. It's astonishing how the axe-grinders can be deterred when one points out logical errors such as false causality and failure to define terms adequately (under the rubric bad teaching can be included so many highly disparate factors that the term is essentially useless).

    There's also a failure, in attributing low test scores to bad teaching, to understand just what a test is. It's a diagnostic inventory. Aliceacc, for one, has mentioned giving a posttest on which her students crashed and burned. Their performance doesn't make Alice a bad teacher, but it did get her attention, and she retaught the material. Similarly, standardized testing should be used as a way to discover where more attention and resources may be needed. That isn't going to happen, however, until teachers working together start insisting on it.

    In broad-brush terms, a particular person scores low on a test on a particular day for reasons including (but not necessarily limited to) one or more of these:

    - An unusually bad day.

    - No motivation. This divides into (at least) two components: (a) the test taker genuinely doesn't care; (b) the test taker has learned not to care in self-defense

    - Test anxiety. There's a connection between this and (b) above: someone who's convinced that tests are The Enemy For Sure is not very likely to do well. I think this is an issue that needs much more work and thought.

    - Learned helplessness. Related to test anxiety. Someone who's convinced that he can't solve problems when left to his own devices is not very likely to do well. This also is an issue that needs more work and thought.

    - Lack of test savvy. Some people have simply never learned how to make the test work for them rather than against them; others believe that not knowing the answer RIGHT AWAY means they're stupid, when in fact it probably means that the answer needs to be worked out rather than known cold.

    - Lack of basic tools. Someone who can't reliably read a paragraph and extract information from it is dead meat in a standardized test. Similarly, someone who hasn't mastered the expected math skills is toast.

    - Lack of background knowledge. Someone who has never played on a see-saw or anything like one is hampered in visualizing to visualize the answer to a question about a class 1 lever.

    - Lack of subject area knowledge. This probably doesn't need elaborating.

    Some of these can be affected by "bad teaching" - most of us have at least one horror story from our own past. It's more productive, though, to point out that some can be ameliorated by better teaching and more sensitive deployment of resources.
     
  7. Aliceacc

    Aliceacc Multitudinous

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    Good points.

    Sometimes, at least in my own experience, it IS "bad teaching"-- or maybe "not thorough enough teaching" is a better term. If I'm teaching a group of 40 kids, and 30 haven't passed the test, then I've done something wrong. Either my test doesn't reflect what I've taught, or I've managed to lose 3 quarters of my class. I know that other people have different experiences, but my kids have passed a test in order to gain admittance to the school. They are smart enough to grasp the material. Discipline is pretty much a non-issue. So while it is their job to learn, it's also my job to reach them. If too many have failed, then we both need to go back and re-do our jobs.

    The test-savy point is also important. I know that I expect my kids to approach a classroom test far differently than the SAT for example. On my test, it makes absolutely no sense to leave a question blank. On the SAT, there's the infamous "guessing penalty" to discourage blind guessing. But kids aren't born knowing this stuff; it's our job as educators to prepare them for the kind of test they're taking. I also expect my kids to do the "Part II" (long, show-your-work kind of math problems) before the scantrons on a major exam. I explain the whole "what if you run out of time" theory. It also makes sense for the uncertain students: far better to get the big questions done first, then worry about the tiny little details on the multiple choice questions. Inevitably, there will be one MC question that they just don't know, and some kids get totally psyched out at that point. Far better to have the big questions done at that point.
     
  8. TeacherGroupie

    TeacherGroupie Moderator

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    Jan 27, 2007

    Your comments on "bad teaching" illustrate the point that it's important to define use the term carefully. One huge reason for that is the temptation to which many people succumb to think that "bad teaching" automatically means "teachers are bad". And then it goes downhill from there... and we end up with meat-ax solutions to problems that should be treated with scalpels.

    As to guessing on the SAT, in fact I don't discourage it. The penalty is 1/4 point per incorrect guess, true, but the payoff for a correct guess is a full point one wouldn't have gotten otherwise, and the test taker who can eliminate the stupid answers to leave just two reasonable choices has a 50-50 chance of picking the right one.

    The further points about test savvy are crucial - just as they're crucial to problem solving in general: it's very important to learn that the first step or first question being difficult doesn't mean the rest of the task will be daunting.
     
  9. Kat53

    Kat53 Devotee

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    Jan 27, 2007

    How can we not look at quality of instruction if a school ( or classroom) has consistantly bad test scores. There are many tests (such as Dibels) which are given many times over the course of the year, so no label is given to a teacher after just one test. Yes, demographics plays a part, but if similiar schools or classrooms are getting much better results, with the same population of kids, then we need to look at our instruction to see what we could be doing more effectively. Teaching is hard- and many times you need to change your own personal style of instruction if it's not working. I am NOT saying that poor tests scores are always a result of bad instruction, but the reality is, sometimes they are. I'm just really sick of teachers blaming the kids, blaming the administration, blaming the tests, and not taking any responsibility for themselves. And some kids are definately reluctant to learn no matter what you do with them, but if it is a teacher who has these scores year after year.....
     
  10. Aliceacc

    Aliceacc Multitudinous

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    I don't either. But the proctors are required to read that line from ETS about how "random guessing is unlikely to improve your score" (did I get it pretty much right?) So I always do a spiel in my SAT classes about it. I talk about eliminating those stupid choices before taking a guess, or just taking one real quick one, but not sweating out a question and then guessing. If you're going to gamble on that 1/4 point, at least do it quickly so that you can get to the next question that you DO know.

    I also mention that the Free Response questions carry no penalty. And there are always some on geometry, where a diagram can point you in a right direction. When in doubt, 90 or 180 are always logical answers in geometery.

    But you've got to talk about the TEST, not just the material on it.
     
  11. Irissa

    Irissa Cohort

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    Jan 27, 2007

    Low test scores year after year don't always mean bad teaching. There are many factors involved. My scores tend to be very low year after year because I teach the low students. I can move them great lengths but I can't move mountains. I had 3 third graders last year who came to me at a kindergarten reading level. (They knew letters and sounds but couldn't put the words together.) They ended my year at a some where in the middle of second grade reading level. Enough to pass "the test"? Not on your life. But great gains were made. It's really all in how you read the results.I'll continue to work with the low kids even if my class test scores remain low.

    Oh on another note I just ADORE parents who tell me that they know more about teaching reading than I do. I always want to say If you know so much about reading why can't your child read (Yesterdays parent has a child that scored a 5 on the dibels. She said ... its not that I'm telling you you don't know what you are doing BUT.....) Hello people who has the teaching degree? Not to mention the Master's in reading!! Sorry for the vent I feel better now.
     
  12. TeacherGroupie

    TeacherGroupie Moderator

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    My point precisely, Kat53.

    Test scores as such don't identify bad teachers or good teachers. Test scores that aren't what we expect do suggest that something hasn't worked. At that point, it's appropriate to go back and look carefully, critically, and honestly for factors that could have contributed to the anomalous low scores (or, for that matter, the anomalous high scores). Which means, among other things, a sense of history: an anomaly can be identified only in context, both at a point in time and over time, and there are multiple contexts that need to be considered.

    And, yes, certainly all of the parties involved need to own their share of the responsibility. There are certainly lesser-skilled teachers who have gotten away with hiding behind their more skilled colleagues: the lesser-skilled teachers who can improve need to be brought up to speed. It could be that many teachers themselves need to brush up on the basic skills, the subject area knowledge (as distinct from how to teach - overlap there may be, but those ARE distinct issues), and test savvy.

    But that isn't going to happen in an atmosphere of finger-pointing and paranoia.

    And the other elements do also need to be looked at, carefully, critically, and honestly. Too many administrations and boards grab onto supposed magic bullets in the form of cookie-cutter scripted programs, and then can't figure out why teachers stop showing initiative. Too many tests are written by committee, with predictably dismal results. In too many communities there are schools whose facilities and resources are woefully inadequate to the children they serve.

    Bottom line: Tests are like the thermometer strips that one can use on a child's forehead. The strip indicates whether the temperature is high, but it takes sensitive and skilled questions to ascertain whether the problem is a minor sore throat, a major infection, or the result of holding the strip over the night-light bulb.

    And teachers need to be part of that process.
     
  13. TeacherGroupie

    TeacherGroupie Moderator

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    Some talk about the test, yes, so the kids whose parents spend buckets of money on SAT prep classes don't buy themselves an automatic advantage.

    And then there are the critical thinking skills, with which someone can walk into pretty much any standardized aptitude test (and surprisingly many achievement tests) and do all right.

    And then there's vocabulary...

    And getting across to kids that the math and the writing and the reading and all that all have uses outside the classroom and outside the test.
     
  14. TeacherGroupie

    TeacherGroupie Moderator

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    Well, and it's perfectly possible to design a report, given the right data, that will look at where those kids started and where they ended up and find that the behind-grade-level score actually reflects an ahead-of-prediction increase. And, yes, it's all in how you read the results - and teachers need to involve themselves in the decisions about how the results will be read.

    Irissa, I'm thrilled beyond words for them and for you.
     
  15. Kat53

    Kat53 Devotee

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    Good points Teachergroupie and Irissa. I agree that data needs to be looked at from very many perspectives-and while some kids may never read grade level standards on tests, growth is growth and should be celebrated. I think there are many facets to the discussion of tests results, teacher performance, and student growth.
     
  16. TeacherGroupie

    TeacherGroupie Moderator

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    Celebrating growth is so important! So many teachers-to-be taking practice tests count all the questions they got wrong and then get discouraged - when they should be counting the questions they got right. That's something that the adequate-yearly-progress thing doesn't do successfully, and teachers really do need to learn how that works and get involved in choosing what gets looked at.

    I hate it that the mere idea of testing unhinges people. hate hate hate
     
  17. Aliceacc

    Aliceacc Multitudinous

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    Ah, the infamous "When are we going to use this???"
     
  18. Aliceacc

    Aliceacc Multitudinous

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    In any discussion of testing and good/bad teaching, I think we also need to discuss the need to get scores back to the kids in a timely manner (OK, maybe a smidge off topic.)

    But I sometimes peek at the testing forums (where I have no business being.) Just last night someone commented that he wished the scores were posted faster, and I can certainly understand the frustration.

    It's the same frustration our kids feel when week after week goes by and teachers still haven't returned tests or essays.

    I KNOW how long it takes to grade. But the kids deserve the same courtesy we ourselves want: an honest effort to get them their grades while the test is more than a distant memory.
     
  19. TwinsStSt

    TwinsStSt Rookie

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    I am a teacher at an alternative school (7th thru 12th)- the students were kicked out of the public school because of poor behavior/disruptive behaviors, poor attendance , etc. We are required to give the standardized tests as well (the results are included in the public school scores). Last year we had 12 students take the test - the longest it took anyone to complete the math portion was 8 minutes - the test allowed 65 minutes. These students just don't care - they just fill in the dots - sometimes they make a design - these test scores effect the public school dramatically - but there is nothing we can do - lack of parental support, etc. It also irks me that many of these students are on probabtion and nothing happens to them. If a student feels like sleeping in, they call their probation officer and the PO picks them up and brings them to school w/o any consequences. Due to the nature of our facility, if we complain about the PO dept., we could lose our contract with the county. So frustrating, but then so rewarding when we do have a success story.
     
  20. TeacherGroupie

    TeacherGroupie Moderator

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    Like heck you don't belong on the testing forums, Alice - you've helped tremendously there.

    Seems to me that teacher tests can and should be a tool in teacher preparation - showing candidates what subject area knowledge needs to be brushed up, helping candidates work on their own test taking skills... AND reminding candidates what it feels like to be prepping for and taking examinations.

    TwinStSt, you sound frustrated, and you have my sympathy. I don't think your experience indicates that testing doesn't work - but it certainly does indicate that test results need to be analyzed very carefully indeed: for diagnosis, not for punishment.
     

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