What you don’t know will hurt your children

If you’re not a public school teacher, you probably haven’t heard about Student Growth Objectives (SGOs). If you are a public school teacher, you’re probably starting to get a bad headache at those words. Here’s the thing: SGOs are bad for students. Really bad. Let me explain.

All teachers who are now being evaluated by standardized systems of evaluation as mandated by their states, such as Stronge or Danielson in New Jersey. A major part of these systems is the SGO, which is established by a baseline assessment done at the beginning of the year, which is then compared to a final assessment at the end of the year in March. (Yes, that does sound odd, and, perhaps, stupid because the school year ends in June, but there needs to be time for all the administrators and the state administrators to go over the evaluations, so the end of the teacher evaluation year is actually in March instead of June.) A teacher must set a goal at the beginning of the year based on the “pre-assessment” and other data points selected by the teacher that will show “growth” of a majority of her students. If that goal is met in March, the teacher is “effective.” If it is surpassed then the teacher is “highly effective,” and, if not made, then the teacher is either “partially effective” or “ineffective,” depending on how poorly the students do. This SGO is NOT the only item by which teachers are evaluated, but it is a big part of it.

So, here’s how it hurts the students. The baseline numbers to set the SGOs are gotten by the teacher. Those baselines must be low enough for the majority of students in order to show growth by March. Thus, the incentive for teachers is to make that pre-assessment HARD, so students do not do well on it. This way, when they have the post-assessment, they will do better so the scores will go up, showing growth over that period of time, thus making the teacher effective (or highly effective). Now, one little essay or test giving students a bad score doesn’t sound like a horrible thing, and, honestly, it’s not. STATISTICALLY. The students who are “A” students will wind up “A” students. BUT what this system does not take into account are two MAJOR issues in certain areas: parents’ reactions to a single bad grade and student reactions to a single bad grade, especially at the beginning of the year.

Parents who are on top of their kids all the time to get bad grades or they will be punished are affected by this system because one bad grade, which the system is geared toward for all students, sets them off on their negative attacks. I’m not saying the parents are particularly wrong in this case. It’s the system. Suddenly a student is grounded because he got a “C” on a test or a teacher receives twenty angry emails about students doing poorly out of a class of twenty-five. Without this system, this wouldn’t happen. But that’s not the worst effect.

Students can be destroyed by this system. I will give two examples, one from my personal experience and one from a colleague’s. I work in a pretty affluent area in a school that prides itself on giving students a good education. Our students, in general, do well after they graduate. Many of our students care about their grades and work hard to achieve good ones. Last year, a senior girl came to me after my pre-assessment essay was graded with tears in her eyes. She had gotten a C- and had always been an A-/A student in English. I reassured her that there would be many more assignments to bring that grade up, and there were, and she did, but at that moment and until she did that additional work during the marking period that brought her, and everyone else’s, grade up, she felt like a FAILURE. Is this good for a student’s mental health? I doubt it.

A colleague of mine works in an inner-city school. She’s a social studies teacher and had a test for her pre-assessment that was half multiple choice questions and half an essay. One boy in her class, who had been working hard for two years before getting to her junior year class to get his grades up and be successful, did not do well on the essay portion of the exam, mainly because it was testing the students on information that they hadn’t learned yet. This, by the way, is a common technique to make a test really hard at the beginning of the year — test the students on what they WILL learn, then teach them, then test them on the same things in March and “ta-da” they improved! Now, this teacher would have done two major things differently if there weren’t any of these standardized evaluation systems. First of all, she would never have tested students on information that they had not learned yet and count the score for their grades. Second, she would have been able to adjust the boy’s grade according to his effort rather than just the standardized rubric for the essay to reflect his true ability to evaluate historical information and write about it rather than his being able to meet the standards, but she could not do these things because she must submit all her data to her supervisor who passes it on to the principal. There is no such thing as teacher discretion in grading. The result? The boy gave up. He had worked so hard with so many outside conflicts in his way to make it to her class and now his failure on the test showed him he didn’t belong there. He stopped working. Luckily, this colleague of mine is a good teacher and she worked with the boy to reassure him that his hard work would pay off and one test will not destroy his GPA, and, eventually, he turned his attitude around again, but was that all worth it? This was just in one class, but what if it happened in ALL his classes, as all classes must submit SGOs, including electives. He may have never come back from the disappointment.

But don’t worry. Statistics show that a large majority of students do well in the long run and are absolutely fine, despite this situation. So, what do you have to worry about? Your kid isn’t in the minority of students that are negatively affected by SGOs, right?

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