Testing, testing, testing

In The Test Generation, Dana Goldstein looks at a Colorado Springs district that tests all students in all subjects — including music, art and P.E. — multiple times during the year.  Their progress will determine whether their teachers  earn a lot more or a lot less.  First graders are supposed to evaluate Picasso’s use of colors and shapes to show emotion in “Weeping Woman, ” a cubist portrait; later, they’re told to write a paragraph on a Matisse painting. (The test will be made easier next year.)

In order to assess (Sabina) Trombetta, the district will require her Chamberlin Elementary School first-graders to sit for seven pencil-and-paper tests in art this school year. To prepare them for those exams, Trombetta lectures her students on art elements such as color, line, and shape — bullet points on Colorado’s new fine-art curriculum standards.

If a teache in Harrison District 2 “grows” students’ test scores over the course of the year, she could earn up to $90,000 — more than double the average for a Colorado teacher, Goldstein writes. ” But if her students score poorly two years in a row, her salary could drop by as much as $20,000, and she could eventually lose tenure.”

In addition to all the testing, Harrison has adopted “intense professional-development efforts of the sort promoted by education experts from across the political spectrum.”

Harrison teachers are told to expect up to 16 on-the-spot classroom observations per semester from administrators and instructional consultants; after these visits, teachers receive feedback on everything from classroom layout to lesson plans to whether they are spending too much or too little time explaining assignments to students before letting them try a hands-on activity.

Soon Colorado will require all schools to evaluate teachers’ effect on students’ academic growth in all subjects.

About Joanne


  1. You know, doctors run tests constantly to make sure the actions they are taking are correct. Airline pilots have dozens of instruments giving them tons of data at all times, to help them evaluate their actions. But neither of them have to submit all of their data to higher authorities…unless something goes horribly wrong. Short of that, we trust their training and their expertise, and let them evaluate things locally and make decisions locally.

    Maybe if we started taking teaching seriously as a profession, and recruited, trained, and onboarded teachers with as much rigor as we apply to medicine or piloting, we could all relax, have a little faith, and allow the professionals to do their jobs.

  2. Why has art class for first graders turned into lectures on art elements such as “color, line and shapes.” These are 6-year olds – is this what students at that age need to learn and can understand? We try to teach 4 and 5 year olds to read, which many are not developmentally ready for, and now first graders in this Colorado school district are supposed to be able to evaluate Picasso paintings?!

  3. georgelarson says:

    Pilots and physicians have protocols they are expected to follow. Failure to follow their protocols can result in suspension of their professional status or even criminal charges. Does teaching have these kinds of protocols? Would the teachers unions allow this to happen?

  4. Andrew, true that pilots have considerable discretion under the doctrine of pilot-in-command authority. But they are also frequently observed and evaluated by instructors, company officials, and in some cases FAA people. Private pilots are required to take a Flight Review with a certified flight instructor every 2 years, regardless of how much experience they have accumulated; for airline pilots, reviews are much more frequent. Airline and other commercial pilots are also evaluated on schedule performance and fuel usage.

  5. I don’t get why teachers are always considered the only predictor of a student’s success. In fact, I read a study where the teacher was number 3 behind home/family life and socio-economic status. When does a student’s home life and parents come into the conversation?

    You want to talk about doctors being observed and what not, how many doctors lose their license if their patients smoke or are over-weight?

    For some reason the parents and students themselves are taken out of the education equation.

  6. This is the kind of stupidity you get when you let politicians and hedge fund managers decide what children learn.

  7. Wow, I’m glad I homeschool. My kids in 1st grade get to do actual art projects and visit museums for their art rather than trying to write a paragraph analyzing a Matisse painting. Way to go sucking all the enjoyment out of fine arts…

  8. Roger Sweeny says:

    Mr. W,

    I completely agree. We should tell parents and voters that we only have a very limited effect on what students learn. Alas, we do the opposite, saying that we are professionals with special skills who can teach pretty much anyone anything.

    It has always been a lie but we haven’t pointed that out because it has led to relatively good pay, benefits, and pension. Now people expect us to make good on the lie.

  9. I’m with Mr. W’s comments about the role of parents. For true reform, we need to focus on all players–parents, teachers and students. Like that three-legged table… that cannot stand up if one or more leg is broken.

    Education is not a passive activity. Teachers don’t do it for students. Students have to work at it and parents have to support them and the teacher–only then, maybe we’ll finally get somewhere.

    Why are public officials so reticent about that three-legged table?

  10. We’re getting closer. Someone besides me (specifically, Joanne’s post) has at least *referenced* Harrison District 2 in Colorado Springs. More attention needs to be paid there.

  11. Michael E. Lopez says:

    I might feel better about this if the tests weren’t such jokes.

    The test asked the first-graders to look at “Weeping Woman” and “write three colors Picasso used to show feeling or emotion.” (Acceptable answers: blue, green, purple, and yellow.) Another question asked, “In each box below, draw three different shapes that Picasso used to show feeling or emotion.” (Acceptable drawings: triangles, ovals, and rectangles.)

    I guess the white — the bone white spreading from the woman’s handkerchief across her face — doesn’t show any feeling or emotion. And I suppose the little triangular splashes of pink about the eyes — little bits of an actual flesh-tone peeking through abstraction — don’t show any feeling or emotion.

    And I suppose the semi-circles that signfy, you know, tears aren’t showing enough emotion to qualify for the shape question.

    And I think the only actual rectangles in the painting are on the wall behind the woman, which might be showing emotion in some sort of referential Charlotte Perkins Gilmore Yellow-Wallpaper homage sort of way (though the timing is all wrong).

    What a load of crap.

    The fact that it’s first-graders just makes it more awful: they’re being trained at an early age to understand that their lives are going to be spent trying to guess what’s inside the head of some moron who is writing their test questions.

    I’m one of the best test-takers I’ve ever met, and I got to be that way in great part because I figured out an an early age that the actual answers weren’t important at all. Only the answers on the answer key were important.

    A well-designed test is one which makes this observation a trivial matter. A poorly-designed test is one for which this observation is all that matters.

    Any test with those questions on it is a poorly-designed test.

  12. Colorado Springs let all the grass in its parks die, turned off a quarter of their street lights, closed all public rec centers and pools, and locked all public park restrooms last summer because their revenue was down and the area is anti-tax and anti-government. Ironically, their largest source of revenue is federal government money from the Air Force Academy.

    So, I’m not too impressed and I’ll leave them to their misery. Hopefully, their disease won’t spread to too much of the rest of Colorado. There are still some rational people in the state.

  13. Fred the Fourth says:

    Andrew: I don’t wish to seem to attack you personally, but your comment reflects something I see all too often. Most people have NO IDEA how much testing, criticism, and evaluation goes into professions such as Professional Engineer (Certified PE) or Air Transport Pilot (ATP).

    At the ATP level, you must be certified on the aircraft class (e.g. multiengine jet) including weight, carrying passengers for hire, etc. You must be certified on the particular model (e.g. Boeing 747-400, Airbus A-320, DC-8, Lear-35). You must perform a Biennial Flight Review with a qualified examiner. You must be certified for special operations (e.g. High-altitude airports). You must maintain certified currency in various operations including weather and night operations. You must be current on Air Traffic Control procedures and rules. (The AIM/FAR (Airman’s Information Manual & Federal Aviation Regulations) ABRIDGED edition for private pilots is about 2.5 inches thick.) You must have a current medical certificate, renewed annually.

    FAR Part 91 states: The Pilot In Command is solely responsible for the safe operation of the aircraft. It goes on to say the PIC may violate any rule in the FARs, if IN THE SOLE JUDGMENT OF THE PIC it is necessary for safe operation, but must submit to investigation by “the administrator of the FAA” for any such violation (meaning you can lose your license forever). How would you like that level of responsibility every time you arrived at work? (never mind the lives at stake…)

    All this, before we even BEGIN to address the question of what rules the Airline has.

    I know this is a bit overwrought, but I do get a bit peeved when I hear people complain about perhaps losing a promotion or a raise because of some performance problem or rule violation.