Obvious Truths We Shouldn't Be Ignoring Series (Part 5)

This is the fifth blog post in the ‘Obvious Truths We Shouldn't Be Ignoring Series.’ This series is based upon eight ‘Obvious Truths’ presented by Alfie Kohn in his "Ten Obvious Truths That We Shouldn't Be Ignoring" published in the September 2011 issue of The Education Digest.

"Just because doing x raises standardized test scores doesn't mean x should be done."

In Kohn's piece he notes a number of flaws and – even more important – questions which should be asked of any test. While I agree with all that he voiced, I'm going to take this post in another direction, a direction closer to home and the prison educator.

The concept of standardized tests is a relatively new one to me. I remember taking the SATs and other end-of-year tests, but until recently I never considered standardized testing to also grade the teacher. This concept became a reality to me several months ago and has added a completely new facet to the way I view examinations.

In a shift in policy, the Education Department of FCI-Petersburg started keeping more detailed records of students in the Adult Continuation program, of which I am an instructor. This manifested itself in a shift from the tracking of completions and attendance to the tracking of completions, attendance, grades, and even an instructor grading form for students to complete at the end of the final examination. All of which now is published within the Education Department amongst the instructors and administration. Hence, both a collective competition and a personal tug-of-war have ensued.

At first I liked this idea a lot. To me it signaled a desire to improve course offerings and a mechanism to get rid of instructors who don't make the grade. After all, it appeared that by analyzing the results one would be able to see which instructors are doing a good job and which ones aren't. This and the ranking of classes by scores even caused a healthy competition to come about.

More importantly for me than the competition and motivation to do better was that I saw this grading of instructors as a tool for change and a mechanism to challenge the status quo. To put it simply: I was curious to see if the tool would expedite progress and improvement. 

Though, after having considered the issue at length – and going through the instructor grading process once – I have concerns. These concerns revolve around the true accuracy of the grading criteria and the graders themselves. The grading criteria would never stand in a scientifically-based study or even in a courtroom because of the very obvious flaws.

The potential problems are legion. From the start one sees the instructor grading form as a mechanism for students – who complete the form – to lash out at instructors who did a good job, but didn't appease them. For example:  an instructor that required students to attend classes or complete homework assignments. Or, the grading form could even be used as a method of voicing personal bias.

Also, there is no standard or base level of student. Hence, the manic student – which I spoke about in a class update – filled out one of these forms along with others who were more level-headed. This would be an issue of grader consistency and mental stability. Simply, no two graders would grade the same. I would even argue that the students wouldn't qualify as a representative sample of the average person because of their status as prisoners.

The most potentially damaging issue regarding this form of instructor grading – by the student – has to do with the class itself. Let's take the ‘Film Critique’ class as an example. In that class all the students did was watch movies. Who wouldn't want to do that?! But, how much did they learn? I would imagine not much at all.

On the contrary, my class includes homework assignments, class assignments, a 25-question pre-test, and a 50-question post-test. As such, my class was much more challenging. Therefore, my class was not nearly as easy and entertaining to the average student as watching Man on Fire or The Lord of the Rings. As you can see, the results are skewed because of class complexity.

As a matter of fact, I'm already anticipating my upcoming ‘Professional Writing’ class to receive lower marks than my ‘Writing and Publishing’ class because of the increased difficulty of the class. I'm also expecting several students to drop out because they don't want to do the work involved. In this scenario (which is still future and hypothetical) the existing grading criteria would produce a false negative because of the difficulty of the course and dedication required of the student. The huge concern here is that the grading criteria could literally lower the quality level of the offered courses because of grading concerns.

With all of this being said, several actions could be taken to reduce the chance of false negatives and to improve the quality and consistency of the grading itself. One such option would be to do away with student evaluations and have a specific instructor sit in on a class or all classes and have them do the grading. Another option would be for the students' grading and the observing instructor's grading to be averaged. And finally, some mechanism would need to be in place to account for more difficult classes. I'd hate to see class quality go down because of instructors being concerned about the ease of the course and student evaluations.

Regardless of what is done or how it is accomplished, the focus needs to be on implementing effective changes which allow for improvement. Any statistics gathered need to be put to use in terms of improving the quality of instruction, and justifying and advocating for more educational opportunities. At the end of the day, we are all educators. We want to assist our fellow educators with improving their methodologies and making the classes we teach that much more effective. Only through some form of informed observation can that be accomplished. But please allow this informed observation to be scientifically sound and based upon common sense.