Unwilling Accomplices: How the SLO Process Bullies and Demeans Students

11/26/12

By Jane Weinkrantz

So, Plainview-Old Bethpage Central School District, in accordance with our stateís undignified and hasty leap into bed with Secretary of Education Arne Duncanís ill-conceived and ill-thought out ďRace to the Top,Ē has administered its first-ever SLO (Student Learning Objectives) baseline exams.  The administration of the tests went about as you would think giving kids tests on information they have not been exposed to--- never mind actually learned-- would go, which is to say that the whole process was filled with stress, confusion, anger and anxiety for students, parents and teachers alike. (The only positive part of the experience for me was that my son is now a college freshman and didnít have to endure the farce of the SLOs. If he were still in high school, I would have kept him home.)

The goal of the SLO pre-assessment is simple; its purpose is to measure what students know at the beginning of the school year and what they know at the end of the school year.  The difference, whether substantial or slight, is then used to evaluate the teacher.  Of course, assessing knowledge at the start of the school year means presenting students with exams composed entirely of unfamiliar information and telling them to do their best. This asks students to reverse everything they have been taught about tests, such as:

1.      A test measures how much you learned.

2.      You can control a testís outcome by studying, paying attention, doing your homework and attending remedial class.

3.      If you do not recognize material on a test or donít know how to do it, you have done something wrong.

4.      You should always try your best.

These are excellent principles. But, on SLO day, they are put aside. Instead, we ask the same students to disregard the years of testing habits we have inculcated and think:

1.      A test measures how well your teacher teaches, but donít feel guilty if, at the end of the year, you still canít do this stuff and she gets a poor evaluation. Yes, you are the person taking the test, and yes, your name is on it, not your teacherís, and yes, your grade will be recorded by the school district and the state, but itís not actually about you.

2.      You canít control this testís outcome by studying, paying attention and attending remedial class because you havenít had the opportunity to learn any of it, yet.  These good habits, which we have encouraged you to cultivate over the years, have no impact on baseline testing and are irrelevant. Nonetheless, please resume them tomorrow.

3.      If you do not recognize material on this test or donít know how to complete certain tasks, relax. We have the lowest expectations possible for you. However, please continue to take the process seriously. Do not, for example, fill in your Scantron, so that it resembles a daisy chain or spells out your dogís name.

4.      Doing your best on this test i.e. reading each question carefully and trying to reason out a correct answer from unfamiliar material will do you no good. You probably wonít pass this test, it doesnít count in your average and no one will share the results with you, anyway. Essentially, weíre just using you to check up on your teacher. In spite of that, please continue to expend all the effort and concentration that serious test-taking involves, even seriously hopeless test-taking.

5.      If you are in the lower grades and have not yet mastered dealing with frustration, all we ask is that you try not to cry too much.

6.      If you have a severe disability and canít make the distinction between tests that evaluate you and tests that evaluate your teacher and you are feeling overwhelmed and anxious about all this unfamiliar material, see #5.

Knowing that these were the tacit assumptions inherent in baseline testing. I felt guilty giving out the tests. After all, my job as a teacher is to help students learn and to make them proud of what they accomplish. It is not to set them up for failure. Yet, that is exactly what I was doing. Handing out the test was the same as saying, ďSurprise! Look how much you donít know!Ē

The element of SLO surprise has an impact on students as well. Certainly, we didnít warn students about the upcoming baseline tests which werenít administered until nearly five weeks into the school year. After all, they werenít supposed to prepare. Parents were not made aware in advance either. If a student came home with an incomplete understanding of what the exam was intended for and told a parent he took a test on which he recognized no material a month into the school year, that mother or father might worry that the child had an undiagnosed learning disability or attentional issues. I guarantee that someone somewhere has been evaluated for a disability as a result of SLO pre-assessments. Somewhere else, someone has started Ritalin. Someone else just wasnít allowed to play video games for a week.

Once testing ends and weíve all spent precious teaching time on an activity from which no one has become smarter, we expect kids to resume their previous attitudes towards instruction and studying after theyíve had a peek at education at its most cynical and insensitive The SLO baseline testing process damages studentsí trust in the education system and encourages them to view their teachers as bullied bureaucrats rather than knowledgeable and engaging instructors. When the tests were over, I had the impression that some of my students felt a little sullied for having involuntarily participated in my evaluation. They were unwilling accomplices in a process that they did not choose or approve of. Others just looked sorry for me. I am sure this is nothing compared to how they will look in June when the results of the test will count in their averages and will determine how I am viewed as a teacher. No pressure, though.

Apart from the continued lack of proof that test results are a reliable way of evaluating teachers, the primary fault of the SLO testing is its complete lack of respect for students.  The children whose education we value so much that they must receive instruction from only the most effective teachers are made into convenient pawns whose time is wasted on ridiculous assessments yielding specious conclusions about teacher efficacy. The SLO process presumes that students have no meaningful feelings or opinions and will do as theyíre told because they are ďjust kidsĒ who should be intimidated enough to cooperate in something they donít necessarily understand or value.  SLOs waste student time, create anxiety, damage student/teacher relationships and engender distrust and cynicism towards school.  Is this really the only way to the top?

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