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Flawed assessments can't measure learning

"The grass is green," the teacher says.

Her students yell in unison, "Fact!"

"Mr. Smith is the best teacher ever," the teacher continues.

The students say with fervor, "Opinion!"

Students in all New York State English Language Arts classrooms are asked to differentiate between facts and opinions as early as third grade. As the skill comes more naturally to students, the inevitable question will be asked: "If it's my opinion, then there's no right or wrong answer, right?" Effective teachers explain that in order for an opinion to be valid, one must present compelling evidence that supports his or her argument.

Why, then, were eighth-grade students from Buffalo to the Bronx asked to read a passage titled "The Pineapple and the Hare" and to determine the wisest (talking) animal based on a conversation included in this story? What may be a wise statement to one student may have an entirely different connotation to another.

Newspapers across the state brought attention to the matter. As a result, the passage and its six multiple-choice questions will not be counted toward the students' "grades." However, where does the ambiguity end? Knowing the flaws of this assessment, how can this be the sole evaluative tool used to determine the effectiveness of teachers, administrators and schools? How can students be labeled as "less than proficient" in nine month's worth of curriculum based on three days of testing using such an obscure form of assessment?

I am an English Language Arts teacher at an urban middle school dealing with the problem of low test scores. I can hear the Internet message boards crucifying me now, pointing out my obvious bias and becoming agitated with my need to provide a scapegoat for my professional incapability. The focus of this piece, however, is not teacher evaluations. Instead, my argument is in direct opposition to the unquestioned emphasis placed on state assessments and the lack of emphasis on the real teaching and learning that occurs throughout the rest of the school year.

I am not opposed to being held accountable for the education of my students; in fact, I think it would be irresponsible not to evaluate teachers on their ability to help students think critically and learn content-specific material. I am opposed to the fact that my students become faceless numbers in a data analysis system and that their test grade, a level 1, 2, 3 or 4, is the only factor that determines a student's rate of success in the eyes of those responsible for developing standards that will drive our instruction for years to come.

When I receive my state test scores, I will be neither happy nor discouraged because I know the value that I have placed on real learning since September. This learning includes meeting both the new Common Core standards and all four of the ELA standards outlined by New York State, which are to read, write, listen and speak.

My students may not have mastered "The Pineapple and the Hare," but they have read texts and written opinion pieces focused on the Holocaust, the Little Rock Nine and personal heritage, amongst other things. My students have thought critically all year long and have even encountered a bit of empathy. I have watched them develop as intellectuals and seen their reading and writing skills dramatically improve. Will this be evident from their state test scores? For their sake, I truly hope so.


Shannon Burke-Krukowski, a 7th and 8th grade ELA teacher, is vice president of the Western New York Network of English Teachers.