You Can’t Fatten a Pig by Weighing It: Assessment and the Future of Teacher Education

By Peggy Wuenstel — How many times following the game do the Monday morning quarterbacks remark that “the score just doesn’t tell the whole story?”

I know what I have used a football analogy before, but hey, we’re in Packer Country.

Many of Wisconsin’s educators are currently buried in the annual WKCE testing window, where we generate the test scores that are used to evaluate our state’s children and public schools. Good teachers and effective schools understand that accountability is a way to showcase the great things we do for children. It also helps the general public to understand how much goes on daily in our public schools.

We can improve measures of student success and ensure that they are not used to rank order school districts, cities, or administrations, but to find models of excellence that can be emulated. We can remember that the goal of assessment is to drive instruction, and use the information we gather to assist students as individuals not as cohort or disaggregated groups. This is especially critical for special education students, who by the definitions by which they qualify for services, will have difficulty reaching proficiency levels on standardized measures.

But sadly, that often doesn’t appear to be what people want to know when we test students. With new legislation making its way through the Wisconsin State Assembly and Senate, teachers have new worries. How will these test scores be used to evaluate our performance as educators?

Most educators I know are proud of what they do and the results they measure. We know that the relationship between teacher and student is key to educational success, keeping kids in school, and attainment of future goals,  but how to we measure this?

If test scores drive teacher evaluation systems and if our livelihood depends on the numbers, how will that force us to change? Teachers who willingly take on the challenge of the most difficult students to reach, those challenged by poverty, low parent participation levels, English Language Learner needs, transience, and poorly funded and managed schools will be penalized for their commitment when students “underperform” on standardized measures. How can we measure commitment, innovative teaching practices, empathy, courage and optimism in the face of overwhelming odds?

There are several reasons that the corporate model of education, and the measurement of its outcomes is significantly off base. Our raw materials are anything but standard. It is their diversity that we celebrate, and we don’t return the wounded, the ragged, the angry, or the lost. The greatest strength of American public education is that we embrace them all. We leave none of them behind, and now leave none of them untested.

Assessments currently in place are not well designed to reflect the work in progress that each student represents. They are not the outcome measures that those who are not familiar with educational testing seem to believe that they are. These kinds of tests do not measure competence, but only provide the snapshot of performance at that particular point in time. Learning is an accumulative process, and if students aren’t effectively learning, which teachers along the way can be held accountable when a child fails to perform? This consumer model of education has a key flaw of logic. If parents and children are consumers of an educational system, but not partners within it, they totally lose their stake in its outcomes.  (More about that in my next post)

A study I’d like to see: By the end of the first six weeks of school, before any standardized measures have been administered, Can teachers rank their students and identify the areas of both strength and need , using the multiple authentic measures at their disposal to draw these conclusions?  Most of the gifted educators I work with certainly can.

At the root of all of this is society’s unwillingness to see teaching as a profession. We don’t require Legislators to complete a competency exam.  Should we assess their performance by looking at the skills of those they represent?   Do constituents follow the laws they enact?  Do they even understand them?  Do they vote? To they actively participate in our democracy? Imagine a system where dentists are judged on the dental health of their patients. Cavity count is the doctor’s fault, not the patient’s responsibility. You can imagine the flight out of low income neighborhoods and free clinics. The movement to privatized charter schools reinforces this view. The system is the key, not the teacher who leads the class. Any bachelor’s degree will do. Licensure and teacher preparation are not important. The parts in this model are interchangeable and universal. Isn’t that the antithesis of what we have always believed about Americans and about our system of education?

Now to the title of this post. You know how sometimes you must watch the whole movie before that cryptic title is explained? An educator who inspires me, Carolyn Chapman, uses this adage to remind us that too much testing can keep us from meeting our mission because You Can’t Fatten a Pig by Weighing It. Time on the scale is time away from the trough.  We aren’t feeding kids’ minds when we are assessing them. We can’t strengthen education by threatening it.  And yes, there are three little pigs in my office to remind me of that.

1 Response to “You Can’t Fatten a Pig by Weighing It: Assessment and the Future of Teacher Education”

  1. 1 RM January 24, 2012 at 2:50 am

    You are completely right about this. The saying about pigs is appropriate – I use it in my book on a career in Education: “Dangling With Alligators” – and I notice that this week for the first time since the education “reforms” in UK of the 1980s, a British education minister has admitted that schools have been reduced to “gaming” the Targets set by government, more than simply teaching young people, the best way they know how. I’m surprised your article here hasn’t had more response. It discusses the most fundamental realisation our leaders need to reach about governing, leading, managing schools.


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