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Better evaluation methods needed in education system

By Kristi Allen
On February 4, 2014

Just as UConn was gearing up for a new semester, the Hartford Courant published an editorial entitled, "Why I Want to Give Up Teaching." The article was written by a middle-school English teacher Elizabeth Natale, who claimed that the Common Core was "stripping the joy out of teaching" and had forced her to consider quitting. The piece fanned the flames of a debate that's been going strong for some time and won't stop any time soon.
This piece resonated with me for several reasons, but not necessarily because I agree with everything the author said. The Common Core and standardized education in general are tricky topics, although I know how I feel about them as a student. What struck me were the anguish and the sense of a loss of control that this teacher conveyed. She feels as though her whole profession is failing.
As students, I think we all feel that our educations have failed us from time to time- some more than others--but that feeling now seems common to individuals involved in education at all levels, from students to national policy makers. Articles everywhere from Reader's Digest to the Atlantic have deemed American education to be in a state of systemic failure. U.S. public schools haven't met targets for improvement, and our students are falling behind those in other countries. Universities and colleges are too expensive, and a university degree doesn't guarantee a job.
The tone of Natale's article is present in a lot of discussions about education. Adults seem just as likely to call American education a broken system as high school students are, and the feeling of alarm is certainly understandable. Many feel that our education system needs major changes, but no one is sure what those changes ought to be.
An interesting aspect of the Courant article is that while Natale expressed disappointment in the current direction of education, she didn't seem have a better system in mind. In the last paragraph of her editorial, Natale says that teaching is "art, not science" and that tests can't measure a student's learning. She ends the article by expressing hope that legislators will come to agree with her.
Critics of the Common Core note its many faults, but they rarely prescribe a course of action beyond "stop doing what we're doing" or "go back to the way things were." Those sentiments may sound good on paper, but there's a reason initiatives like the Common Core came about, and those reasons can't be ignored. A general set of requirements for education is a good idea, but the Common Core just doesn't meet that need efficiently.
Unfortunately, evaluations and standards are going to remain a necessity. Educators and policymakers need some way to assess their progress on a large scale. Standardized testing may not be the best way to evaluate student performance on any scale, but it's currently the only way to realistically conduct those evaluations. There's too much room for error in randomly sampling classrooms or students for progress, so we'll probably have to deal with large scale testing for a while.
With that said, it's clear that our current evaluation system isn't working. The way we measure school performance shouldn't be the most divisive factor of education, and it shouldn't be disrupting curriculum and wasting as much classroom time as it does.
"My most important contributions to students are not addressed by the Common Core, Smarter Balance and teacher evaluations," Natale says. In her view, the formation of peer relationships, the exchange of ideas and the mentorship provided by teachers are what make or break a student's experience. To a degree, she's right. Standardized tests don't measure progress, nor do they take into account the many obstacles students face. They don't measure desire to learn or critical thought.
While Natale is right that standardized tests have become an issue, we do need a way of making sure students are learning. The trouble is, one can ace a multiple-choice test without actually having learned anything. The focus needs to be on creating better tests-ones that are shorter, less distracting and better at assessing student progress. Teacher evaluations are also a necessity, but the current system is oversimplified, and it fails to address many facets of the teaching process along with other reasons that students might not be excelling.
If anything is clear, it's that change is needed. Not more money, or more schools, not more smartboards or standardized tests, but a different system. The Common Core and the evaluation initiatives that preceded it are a good start (even if what we'll learn from them is mostly what not to do) but it's going to take new ideas to fix our education system.
 


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