I’ve been a big fan of Louis C.K.’s comedy and his show, “Louie,” for a while now. The sketches where he talks to his two “daughters” (played by actresses on the show) are always my favorite. See, for example, this great quote when his girls are complaining about being bored on a long car trip.
I find his voice and perspective interesting and so I was definitely paying attention when he piped up earlier this week on twitter about CCSS (Common Core State Standards) and the standardized testing initiatives that have accompanied a push (particularly since early 2000s and NCLB) for greater accountability through testing.
At first when I saw this, I cringed. I’ve heard so much misplaced fear-mongering criticism of CCSS in the past few months that I’ve started to get my back up every time I see some new Facebook post going around about some poorly designed math task claiming to be CCSS-aligned. Other thoughtful, intelligent math teachers and education stakeholders have written plenty about these tasks and the subsequent social media reaction – and their words are worth your time.
But Louis C.K.’s criticism, and the dialogue surrounding it since then, have struck a different chord with me.
Here he is on Letterman Friday night, where he briefly talks about the issue. (Starts around 0:48)
The way I understand it if a school’s kids don’t test well, they burn the school down.
And the tests are written by people that nobody knows who they are. It’s very secretive. They have to prepare for these tests for a long time. A lot of the year is about the test. Teaching to the test they call it, because they decided there’s a new way kids should think and we’re going to prove they are thinking it by having them pass these tests – or we burn the school down.
Anyway, my kids kind of panic – which is okay! My mother was a math teacher and she taught me that the moment where you go ‘I don’t know what that is,’ when you panic, that means you are about to figure it out. That means you let go of what you know and you are about to grab on to a new thing that you didn’t know yet. So I am there for them in those moments. I go, ‘Come on, just look at the problems.’ Then I look at the problems and it’s like ‘Bill has three goldfish. He buys two more. How many dogs live in London?'”
Audrey Watters did a great job chronicling the debate on twitter (worth reading the entire thing!) and responded with her own take today:
One more time, folks: “So it sucks, I agree, that comedians – famous comedians – get to wield this subversive rhetorical power while teachers are ignored for making similar arguments [...but] Louis C.K.’s Twitter rant might have been the most important public, political argument we’ve seen about the CCSS so far.”
Tomorrow my Algebra 1 students take their End of Course (EOC) exam – the Tennessee Comprehensive Assessment Program (TCAP) test given for Algebra I/II, English I/II/III, Biology/Chemistry, and US History. The math test is more than 50 questions long and we have blocked about 2 hours into the school schedule each day this week to administer all of the EOC subject tests. I will never see this test. After my students take the test, I am not allowed to talk about it with them. I am also not allowed to talk about it with my colleagues. Schools are required to:
Implement policies and procedures to prohibit all personnel from obtaining knowledge of test items or passage content before, during, and after testing. Discussion of the test content or specific test items with students, parents, or professional colleagues is prohibited to protect the validity of the test.
(If you’re bored, please enjoy reading the entire 70 page Test Administration Manual for the End of Course exams.)
The state requires that these tests count as 25% of a student’s overall semester grade. From what I understand, although I will at some point have access to my students’ raw scores on this test, the state dictates how exactly these raw scores translate into their exam grade, tells me what to enter, and keeps the calculation of that conversion under wraps.
So the test matters for the students – it has a very real impact on their overall grade for the course. It also matters for the teachers:
Under Tennessee’s teacher evaluation legislation, value-added scores count for a portion of teachers’ overall evaluation scores. For teachers who receive an individual growth score (often referred to as teachers in “tested grades and subjects”), value-added scores count for 35 percent of the final evaluation score. For teachers who do not receive an individual growth score (teachers in “non-tested grades and subjects”), the school’s value-added score counts as 25 percent of the overall evaluation score.
Did you catch that? If your course isn’t a tested subject, other teachers’ growth scores count towards your evaluation.
The state of Tennessee plans to phase out TCAP testing as new, CCSS-aligned assessments come in. We were supposed to begin giving PARCC tests next year (check out some sample math items here – only recently made available), but are delaying at least one more year. In the meantime, my math classes this year gave field tests of “Constructed Response Assessments,” which best I can tell is a test that exists only to prepare our students for the coming PARCC tests. Woohoo!
As a teacher, I find myself caught in the middle. On the one hand, it makes sense to have a common set of ideas for what we expect our students to learn in math class during their K-12 education here in the United States. That’s what I see CCSS as being – a set of guidelines allowing for common vocabulary when we want to talk about what we teach and when we teach it. The Standards for Mathematical Practice touch on the how. The discussion of what good math teaching looks like (what when AND how) is nuanced and challenging and there are tons of smart, dedicated teachers trying to figure it out every day.
On the other hand, we have the assessments that accompany these standards. And the focus on “gaming” the tests and achieving higher scores as an end all unto itself makes little sense to me if it actually compromises the quality of that math education. It brings to mind this Uri Treisman quote from his wonderful keynote speech at NCTM 2013:
I get the power of high-stakes accountability – it’s a blunt instrument wielded from a great distance. But we as a math education community need to remember the children in our care come first, and we have to moderate the effects. This is the hardest challenge for our profession.
(Sound at all similar to…?)
So on the eve of this very important test for my students, I sit here and read as the responses to Louis C.K.’s criticisms roll in. Diane Ravitch has plenty to say here, and Ilana Horn’s post was tweeted out by Louis himself! I continue to be thankful for the opportunity to be connected to so many thoughtful and intelligent educators through our little twitter-blogosphere.