This is the fourth and final article in a four-part series that has explored what standardized tests reveal about students, teachers, and schools. These articles provide an insider’s view (from a teacher and researcher) about what is really going on with standardized tests and what they really reveal.
What Has Testing Done to the Principal’s Job?
Standardized testing and school accountability have drastically changed the role of the school principal. There are many roles that principals and vice-principals are asked to fulfill – educator, boss, community liaison, school culture creator, therapist, and so many more. As a veteran educator, I will tell you that these folks have one of the hardest jobs in our field. The hours are long, they are always on call, they are regularly under the microscope, and so many people depend on them. But one of the biggest, and most important jobs principals have is that of the instructional leader, or in lay terms, the person in charge of making sure there is good teaching happening in classrooms.
Principals accomplish the role of instructional leader in a variety of ways; they observe teachers, they give them feedback to celebrate what they are doing well and where they can improve, they design professional development opportunities, among others. Unfortunately, standardized testing and school accountability measures have dramatically limited principals’ ability to be instructional leaders with the countless number mandates, paperwork, and general administrative time required by standardized tests and school/teacher/administrator accountability obligations required by state and federal governments. This is especially important given that there is a mountain of research that illustrates a direct link between teacher quality and student success. Research shows that principals are so bogged down in testing and teacher accountability measures that they find it nearly impossible to be instructional leaders. If principals don’t have the time to support teachers in becoming the best they can be, our kids ultimately suffer. However, this issue is but the tip of the iceberg for our principals.
Testing is Making Principals Sick…Literally
We mentioned the teacher shortage crisis in last week’s blog post, but there is a similar problem with principals and assistant principals – maybe a worse one. Teacher and school accountability, both of which are based on student standardized test scores, is causing excessive stress for principals while making it far less likely for teachers with the potential to become quality administrators to avoid doing so. Studies show that principals are spending so much of their energies working long hours on accountability issues that it is causing excessive levels of stress for them – not just a little stress, a lot. The numbers of principals reported to have burned out and/or to be suffering from stress-induced mental and physical health issues has dramatically increased over the last several years according to research. Principals are not only feeling overtaxed, but they are also suffering illnesses that are harming their physical health and limiting their own belief in themselves to get things done well. Interestingly, 75% of principals believe their jobs are too complex with half of them feeling as though they are under tremendous amounts of stress throughout their week. The dissatisfaction can be linked to the stressors caused by standardized testing and teacher accountability measures, which has left principals little time to focus on working with teachers to improve instruction while forcing them to focus inordinate amounts of time filling out paperwork related to these measures. Along with that, principal accountability measures, which assess how well a principal is preforming primarily based on their students’ success on standardized tests, has reportedly led them to feel frustrated, stressed, and ultimately, powerless. In short, we are burning our principals out, driving them out of schools, and making them mentally, emotionally, and physically ill. We are also making this job so undesirable that less and less people want to do it. This is not healthy or sustainable.
So What Do We Do?
It isn’t bad to try to assess who is doing a good job teaching or being a principal. As parents, we all want our kids to go to great schools with outstanding teachers and administrators but we’re missing the mark. The excessive focus on testing, which as we’ve discussed, assesses lower levels of processing, is actually creating an inferior education for our kids; it’s doing the opposite of what we want. The numbers that are produced on school report cards or on sites like greatschools.org are mostly telling us how well kids take tests at a school. They are not indicators of meaningful, engaging experience, of creative thinking, of problem solving, of collaboration, of…well...a good education. So how do we get at that?
I am not advocating for eliminating all forms of standardized testing but I am for drastically reducing them. I am for not tying teacher, principal, and school quality so closely to them. Can we use them for such purposes? Yes, but to a far lesser degree. We can gather information from students on things like their levels of engagement, their attitude toward school, their feelings of self-efficacy, and much more to get a feel for the school climate (these tools exist). We can get testimonials like we might find on a product review on Amazon from parents about the school, the teachers, the principal. We can change the way we assess kids to provide multiple forms of authentic assessment and portfolio assessment, which can provide numbers if we feel we need those so badly, but they will be based off of much higher levels of thinking while still assessing basic skills when needed. In other words, instead of sitting in a room for days on end, taking multiple choice tests, we can get numbers based off real world products that required kids to apply their learning.
We can begin to empower students, teachers, administrators, parents, and community members by inviting them into the school evaluation process. The Massachusetts Consortium for Innovative Education Assessment is doing just that. In their model, they not only invite those stakeholders into giving feedback on schools, they are including them in the process of determining how they want to evaluate schools. It is the students, teachers, principals, parents, and community who are determining what is important in a school and then using that as a baseline for evaluating them. I believe this is an excellent model and is easily adaptable to any school. It flips the paradigm of an accountability system that is more punitive in nature and creates on that is driven to provide positive, desired change that is relevant to all. Moreover, such a system can stop the proverbial bleeding our schools are currently experiencing through high teacher turnover, high principal turnover, and a national teacher shortage.
What has been abundantly clear to me for sometime is that the current system of standardization and accountability doesn’t work. It is not improving our schools. It is not improving our children’s education. It is causing teachers to leave the profession. It is literally making administrators sick and pushing them out the door too. Worse of all, it is stressing our kids out, leading to never-before-seen levels of anxiety and depression; school is not fun, interesting, or ostensibly relevant for way too many kids. We can do better and we have some clear ideas, based off of both research and actual examples, on how we can do it. Now we need the will to do it.