How to Reform Public School Teacher Testing

How to Reform Public School Teacher Testing

My wife was a high school teacher in math and science in West Sacramento when we married.  (West Sacramento is in Yolo, not Sacramento County, and is considerably poorer than Sacramento.)  She is forever grateful that I took her away from “all that,” and allowed her to have a life where she homeschools our three biological and five adopted children.  She does a great job, and I assist her where she requests, usually where it involves advanced math.

How to Reform Public School Teacher Testing

Having public school teaching experience is an impediment to schooling at home, but my wife has adjusted well.  (In general, what you learn about teaching at college makes you less capable to teach.  My oldest daughter just went through that, and didn’t believe us when we told her that in advance, but agrees with us now after going through the courses.)  Our educational system would be better if we eliminated teacher credentialing, and just hired motivated people who know the subject areas, who love to work with kids of the appropriate ages, and have grit — a determination to succeed.  The present system favors those who are capable at dealing with the paperwork that state and federal governments demand.

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For the first two years we were married, I was quiet or sympathetic to my wife’s fellow teachers.  There is a pathology of sorts where because you have gone to school, and have seen a lot of teachers, therefore you understand teaching.  Teachers often do not like amateurs offering their opinions.  I did not volunteer my opinions to them, in deference to my wife.

That said, I would like to offer my opinion on testing students and using those scores to set teacher pay, or district transfer payments.  Remember, this doesn’t affect me because we homeschool; we pay our state/county taxes though we get less from it than most.

(Before I continue, I would like to note that our dealings with the Howard County school system have been unfailingly pleasant; they are a model for how the public schools and homeschoolers should interact.)

Dedicated teachers will say, “We don’t want to teach to the standardized test.  We want to impart real knowledge, rather than the ability to grind out answers to multiple choice questions.”  That’s a good goal.

In my life, I have taken many exams.  I have passed handily with almost everything, but the toughest exams were essay exams where you had to show your reasoning.  This is true in Math, Science, English, Social Science, etc.  This applied to the second half of my actuarial exams, and also roughly half of my CFA exams.  It was true for virtually all of the exams I had in college and graduate school. (As an aside, the actuarial exam multiple choice problems are much, much harder than normal multiple choice problems… schools should adopt their techniques if they do multiple choice because the methods really test people.)

But for the actuarial and CFA exams, those were my experience with broadly administered exams that were mostly essay.  To grade such exams, the test writers create a grading outline and assign points for each point made.  If someone makes a valid point that the grading outline did not account for the grading outline expands to accommodate it.  Typically two people grade each paper, and the average is the grade, unless they differ by too much, in which case a third grader comes in, and the average of the closest two grades is the final grade.

This is real testing and real grading, and guess what?  It is expensive to do, but generates real results.

With both the actuarial and CFA exams, you could not study to the test.  You could only study.  You could not tell year-to-year what would be on the test.  It varied considerably.

The Payoff

That is the way the public school examinations should be.  The tests should be essay-based (after a certain age, like 10), randomized (not everyone gets the same test), unpredictable, but relevant to what should be taught to students at a given age.  Where warranted, the ability to write should be a factor in scoring, because that is a large predictor of how well you have learned your verbal skills.  Partial credit would come to those that show reasoning capability, even if they didn’t get the right answer.

This would be an expensive way to administer exams, but hey, maybe more college graduates without jobs could get some part-time work as a result.  Or, college students could grade them over a summer, lessening the economic cost of college.  But it would be an effective way of encouraging real learning, and measuring it.

Best of all, the essay exams would be a lot like the life they are going to face.  It’s not predictable.  You don’t know what you are going to face.  Face it bravely, or you have no chance.  Prepare now, study hard, or your odds of success diminish.

The same applies to the teachers.  Teach the most important stuff.  Stress reasoning.  Try to create thinkers, not mere memorizers.  Motivate the material in the best way that you can to inspire students to think.  Teach them to write well, and encourage them to read widely.  I may be conservative in my views, but I have read widely, including many things that I disagree with a lot.  Teach them to look at both sides of a question (when they are old enough), and understand the arguments of those that disagree.

And then, let the teachers live with a system where the test is unpredictable, and they cannot affect its outcome directly.  Will they like that?  I don’t know.  What I do know is that if America is serious about reforming its schools, it will adopt an approach like this, and pay the money necessary to have standardized essay tests graded.

But once teachers can’t affect the results of the testing directly, they will teach their students the best that they can, because if they don’t and the scores of their students sag, they may be gone after some time.  This would empower real accountability, and eliminate the deadwood among teachers that can’t do the job.  Remember, aside from the best, most teachers peak in their effectiveness after year six.  As a result, tenure for public school teachers is really a bad idea.

Education improves by removing unmotivated and untalented teachers.  The best teachers love their subject, their students, and love what they do.  They have grit, and are determined to make a difference.  With 35-45 years behind my public school education, I can still name my teachers who were motivated, against those that went through the motions.

PS — to my regular readers, I know this was an unusual post.  I’m not planning on doing more of these.

By David Merkel, CFA of Aleph Blog

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David J. Merkel, CFA, FSA — 2010-present, I am working on setting up my own equity asset management shop, tentatively called Aleph Investments. It is possible that I might do a joint venture with someone else if we can do more together than separately. From 2008-2010, I was the Chief Economist and Director of Research of Finacorp Securities. I did a many things for Finacorp, mainly research and analysis on a wide variety of fixed income and equity securities, and trading strategies. Until 2007, I was a senior investment analyst at Hovde Capital, responsible for analysis and valuation of investment opportunities for the FIP funds, particularly of companies in the insurance industry. I also managed the internal profit sharing and charitable endowment monies of the firm. From 2003-2007, I was a leading commentator at the investment website Back in 2003, after several years of correspondence, James Cramer invited me to write for the site, and I wrote for RealMoney on equity and bond portfolio management, macroeconomics, derivatives, quantitative strategies, insurance issues, corporate governance, etc. My specialty is looking at the interlinkages in the markets in order to understand individual markets better. I no longer contribute to RealMoney; I scaled it back because my work duties have gotten larger, and I began this blog to develop a distinct voice with a wider distribution. After three-plus year of operation, I believe I have achieved that. Prior to joining Hovde in 2003, I managed corporate bonds for Dwight Asset Management. In 1998, I joined the Mount Washington Investment Group as the Mortgage Bond and Asset Liability manager after working with Provident Mutual, AIG and Pacific Standard Life. My background as a life actuary has given me a different perspective on investing. How do you earn money without taking undue risk? How do you convey ideas about investing while showing a proper level of uncertainty on the likelihood of success? How do the various markets fit together, telling us us a broader story than any single piece? These are the themes that I will deal with in this blog. I hold bachelor’s and master’s degrees from Johns Hopkins University. In my spare time, I take care of our eight children with my wonderful wife Ruth.

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