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TEACHER VOICES: Benjamin Dow, #3

Notes from the Test-ocracy

Teacher Voices Artwork
Art by Elijah Fenter

favicon In Washington State the following will designate you as a “highly-qualified” history teacher:

a. A Master’s Degree in Education from Stanford
b. A Washington State Social Studies Credential
c. AP and IB training in history courses
d. Fifteen years of experience teaching history & stints as department chair
e. None of the above

It turns out the correct answer is “e.” Despite the above credentials, I recently received an email letting me know that Washington State had decided that I was no longer a “highly-qualified” teacher and couldn’t teach history classes next year.

Fortunately, there was an answer to the question in Washington State: being highly-qualified can be measured by my ability to pass a multiple-choice exam.

That’s it.  One-hundred multiple-choice history questions and $155 would get me the “highly-qualified” stamp on my credential.

ben dowEverybody wants highly-qualified teachers, but when your state is unwilling to spend the money needed for a truly high-quality educational system, what’s the best free alternative to ensure “high-quality?” Make teachers take a test that they pay for themselves.

It’s brilliant, really. It costs the state virtually nothing, but shows up on paper as ensuring every teacher in the state is highly-qualified.

This testing solution to real, endemic problems in our schools is at work at all levels of our educational system, and (not) surprisingly seems to benefit the same company again and again in our state: Pearson, who in their own words is “the largest commercial processor of student assessments.”

Here’s how ingrained in our educational toolbox Pearson’s tests have become:

  • The Pearson PARCC test is taken by students across the country in grades 3-11,
  • The Pearson EdTPA assessment by legislative order is now required to become a teacher in Washington State,
  • The Pearson Washington Educator Skills Tests is required to ensure that teachers like me who completed our training in a pre-testing era are equally “highly-qualified.”

Welcome to the Test-ocracy. Pearson and testing companies like them have stepped into the void left by meaningful reform at every level of our state’s educational system—first with students, now with teachers.

Do these teacher tests do anything to improve the quality of instruction in Washington State? The answer to this question could probably be fodder for several dissertations, but we do have some anecdotal evidence about the overall pool of folks we are drawing our teachers from.

Since I first covered the growing rural teacher shortage in an earlier TEACHER VOICES piece, the phenomenon has morphed into a state-wide problem. In short, the answer is probably that your student’s teacher is not any better than they were in the pre-Test-ocracy days.

“Highly-qualified” mandates, though, have had a very negative and quantifiable effect on small, rural schools like ours. We recently had to cut our involvement in the Virtual High School (VHS) program that allowed our students to take literally hundreds of interesting electives we can’t afford to offer. Because it is a national cooperative, very few VHS teachers had jumped through Washington State’s specific “highly-qualified” hoops, and our funding was threatened if we didn’t stop offering VHS classes to students immediately.

Things become even more fun-house mirrored when you look at who grades the Pearson assessment for new teachers, the EdTPA, which each new teacher is required to pay $300 to take.

While I have to prove my own “highly-qualified” status, it turns out that Pearson is hiring experienced classroom teachers like me to grade the EdTPA at $75 a pop.

The circular logic is mind-numbingly silly, and raises the question, if we accept teachers’ judgment about the quality of instructional practice, maybe they don’t need further testing in the first place?

When you start to look at the Test-ocracy too closely it feeds a want for conspiratorial thinking—that big business has plotted to leech money out of our public educational system.  

The reality, though, is both more mundane and more depressing. Ironically, the EdTPA was developed by the same Stanford Department of Education where I earned the Master’s degree that is no longer sufficient to mark me as “highly-qualified.”  They and Pearson are offering legislators around the country an easy solution to the problem of how to fill our emptying classrooms with “highly-qualified” teachers.

I’m not an educational Luddite.  I believe in changing and improving the way we teach and learn. I believe in having high standards for our students and our teachers, but the Test-ocracy has become the default reform mechanism for state legislatures looking to appear like they are taking action to improve our schools, while failing to fundamentally fix the system.

It’s not an unfixable system.  Our state is home to Boeing, Amazon, and Microsoft and has created some of the deepest pools of wealth in the history of the world. We have a GDP roughly equivalent to Austria, a country that manages not only to fully fund their educational system, but offers no-cost college and university to its citizens as well.

President Obama has spoken out against the rise of excessive testing, and recently Congress finally abandoned the No Child Left Behind Act that had required each state to design their own “highly-qualified” designations.

It’s time for state legislators to follow the federal government’s lead and forge a path beyond the Test-ocracy. Because if you examine which parts of the Test-ocracy are actually improving teaching and learning, the answer might very well be none of the above.

(Benjamin Dow is happy to report that he passed his test and is, once again, a “highly-qualified” teacher.)

Ed. note: My claim to fame is that I got to co-teach American Studies with Benjamin Dow in the last century. Since then, Mr. Dow has taught English and social studies in China, Ghana, and Port Townsend, Washington, where he currently teaches Contemporary World Problems. He is published in Teaching Tolerance and recites an annual poem for graduating seniors.