The Worst BEST, or Let’s Re-evaluate Teacher Assessment

11 09 2006

As many of you know, at the end of last school year, I was compiling a huge portfolio for my Connecticut certification. It is called the BEST and all second year teachers have to complete it. As you may remember, the instruction manual was 64 pages long for my area of certification and I had to collect an enormous amount of student work, write reflections, film myself teaching, reflect on that, answer survey questions, blah, blah, blah. It was a tremendous amount of work and even more stress because of how specific everything has to be. But everyone who completes the BEST knows that this is an assessment that judges only one’s ability to follow directions and not one’s teaching ability.

I chose to demonstrate the work on Titus Andronicus that I’d been doing with my 9th graders. If you remember, I was so totally psyched about their hard work last year–understanding Shakespeare is not an easy task. And I had to guide them through their comprehension of very difficult text, ask them to relate it to themselves, get them to analyze characters’ speeches and motivations for the actions they took. It was just the most rewarding teaching experience I’d ever had and I wanted to show the BEST people what I could do. I knew I was doing really well with my kids on this unit because my kids were so responsive to the text and to the activities. It was during this time that kids’ homework completion improved, their class participation improved…everything. I wrote about it all the time on my blog for the New Haven Independent and I was genuinely thrilled to be working with the kids and Shakespeare. I knew it would be great for the BEST.So some time in May, I sent my 100-something paged portfolio along with a huge sigh of relief to the BEST headquarters in Willimantic, which is where it would be read by two or three people and given a score between a failing 1 and an excellent 4. At the same time as the BEST, I was looking for a job overseas, so my world was kind of all up in the air. In all honesty, as soon as I sent my portfolio in, I didn’t give it another thought.

Until last Wednesday. I spoke with a colleague on the phone about BEST scores and she mentioned that one of my other colleagues, Dave, who was doing his BEST at the same time I was got a 1 on his portfolio–a failure.
Okay, hold it. Dave is one of the best science teachers I know. Not only does he have an outstanding rapport with his students, he gets them to learn, gets them involved in their own learning, is a firm disciplinarian, an incredible leader. I couldn’t believe it. I realized my score would be available online, so as soon as I got off the phone with my friend, I checked my score.

At first I laughed because I couldn’t believe it. And then I felt hot tears behind my eyes. I got a 1. I failed. I failed a major assessment that would enable me to get my permanent Connecticut certification and would make my attempt at certification for other states much easier.

But there’s more to this story. WHY did Dave not pass? Because SOMEONE, some nameless scorer who has most likely not been a teacher, didn’t like the CONTENT of his portfolio. Dave did everything perfectly–followed the BEST guidelines to a T. Perfect. The scorer even said so on the outline of his score–perfect in this respect. But some chucko who doesn’t have to put his or her name on his or her judgement of Dave’s work, chose to say, “I don’t like what Dave was doing with his students. Therefore, I shall fail him and he will have to do it again next year.” Even though Dave followed all the guidelines, did exactly what was asked of him, he didn’t pass. Because someone didn’t like what he was doing. (Which was actually an anatomy lab where the students dissected frogs. It was an awesome class; I filmed it for him. I was there. I saw it.)

Me? I don’t know why I didn’t pass. When you check your score online, it just gives you the score, not the explanation. Because I moved out of the country and changed my address, it has probably gotten lost in the mail. So I am stuck here just kind of guessing why I didn’t pass.

So what does this mean for me and for Dave? For Dave, he gets another chance to do it over. He has to do it by December, all over again, a different unit, from scratch. This means he has to go through the same 70-something page manual, follow the same guidelines, film his classes again, collect another massive amount of student work. All that. But this time, he has to make sure that the people who will score his work will actually “like” what he’s doing.
How?!
And so if he doesn’t pass the second time, he gets one more chance–and maybe that third time isn’t guaranteed; it’s kind of like case-by-case to grant the third time. If that doesn’t work, he can’t get certified in the state of Connecticut at all.
For me, it means the same thing. However, my CT certification expires July 2007 and I can’t renew my initial educator’s certificate because it’s just meant to be initial. I am clearly not returning to CT to teach any time soon, so when I want to teach again I will have to reapply for certification, which will then require that I have to do BEST again.
That is, if I chose to teach in Connecticut. And let me say that I would consider it if I didn’t have to do this stupid, stupid portfolio again. But because of this failure, it is enough to make me not want to teach in CT public schools ever again. It sounds petty, I know. But when a person puts in weeks and weeks of planning, writing, reflecting, typing, filming, editing, it’s kind of a slap in the face and makes the idea of teaching in that state sound less and less appealing.

The BEST is not an accurate measure of a good teacher. The BEST measures how one teacher is able to follow directions and appeal to subjective scorers. That’s it. The true measure of a good teacher is IN the classroom. You want to tell me I failed the BEST? Fine. I failed. But you were never in my classroom! You were never THERE with my students who sat around in a circle reading Shakespeare–and not the dumbed-down version…the real thing–and teaching it to each other! You were never there to see them relate a five hundred year-old text to their own lives! You weren’t there to listen to the speeches they wrote when they stepped into characters’ shoes. You weren’t there when we had visitors from New Mexico listen in on a conversation my ninth grade students were having about revenge, Titus Andronicus, their own lives, and you weren’t there when those visitors asked me what I did to get my kids to have that conversation. These were kids who would be labeled “special ed” kids and probably cast aside at another school, in another classroom. But not my classroom! My kids could read. And I helped them. I did that. I was their teacher.
You tell me I failed the BEST? Some ridiculous compilation of writing and student work and stupid video excerpts and stupid reflections? Fine. Maybe I didn’t follow all of your directions. Maybe you didn’t like what I did. Whatever. But you will never, never tell me–and I will never, never believe–that I failed as a teacher.

New Haven Academy, the school where two out of three teachers who were in their BEST Portfolio year failed, raised its 10th grade reading and writing CAPT scores to 74%, doubling the scores of other high schools in the city. The 10th graders who took the CAPT last year were 9th graders the year before. I taught them. Dave taught them. How is it possible to have such incredible success in one school in which TWO teachers failed the BEST?

The BEST doesn’t measure a teacher’s ability to teach. You want to judge whether or not I am a good teacher–or whether Dave is a good teacher–come into our classrooms. See what we do. This is what we know how to do, and we do it well. We do it damn well.

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8 responses

11 09 2006
Marissa

It makes me sick. To have the stupid system requirements tell good ,no, GREAT people like yourself who bring enthusiasm and hope into the classroom they have failed. I am glad that YOU know your efforts were anything but failed and I hope this does not break your spirit. Your love for teaching shines through in your writing and if I can feel it through just your written word than I can only imagine what it feels like to be a student in your class. Your one of the best, despite what BEST has to say about it. Idiots.

12 09 2006
ginacoggio

Marissa,
Thanks for writing and thank you for the kind words. And I think you’re right about the enthusiasm thing. I had a great deal of enthusiasm for what I was doing in my school with my kids. I knew they were learning and it felt awesome. So to find out that I failed this huge assessment totally drains my enthusiasm, somehow makes me feel less psyched to go back to doing what I’d been doing.
Some might argue that the reason why I failed is because I was doing what I was doing….and I’m not going to spend time arguing with them about their opinions. I have no idea why I failed and I don’t want to sit inside my head about it.
And I’m not going to lie–a little bit, this whole failure thing does break my spirit. I put a lot of effort into completing that portfolio, and no matter how strong I might appear, or no matter how stupid I think the whole thing is, I am a professional; and to have someone not like what I do professionally hurts a lot.

It’s different for me, however, to be living out of the country. I’m not reminded of it daily and I have the choice to do it again or not. I have the choice to return to Connecticut, which at this point doesn’t look very likely. But my colleague, and all the other people who didn’t make it last year and who remain in Connecticut, are under and enormous amount of pressure at the beginning of this school year. And they have no choice if they want to remain teaching in Connecticut.

I totally see the value in assessing educators. Absolutely. Everyone has to be evaluated, everyone, no matter what. But I really believe the process–the system, as you said–needs to change. I understand that in order to be a good classroom teacher you’ve got to reach certain standards; but I think the method of assessment needs to change. Assessors have to see teachers in action. And I don’t care what anyone says, a 15 minute video clip does not count as seeing a teacher “in action.”

The fact of the matter is this: Connecticut will lose good teachers if the method of assessment does not more accurately reflect the teacher’s ability to be a teacher, in every sense of the word. A teacher does more than just plan curriculum units and grade papers. A teacher, especially in small urban schools like the one I just came from, wears so many hats and is more to students than just the adult in the room who knows things. But the State doesn’t value the Whole Teacher and therefore doesn’t choose to assess the Whole Teacher. And it’s the State’s loss, really.

16 09 2006
Sue

Wow! I can relate completely to what you have said. It strikes close to home. My spirits completely dropped due to finding out that I, indeed, failed the portfolio. I no longer have the love to re-enter the classroom this year with the joy and excitement that I once had. I have not once had a bad evaluation and I have been told by many that I am an excellent teacher. I work hard at planning wonderful hands-on lessons that will allow all of my students to succeed. I would love for these people to come into my classroom and see the joy and passion that my students have for learning. My students learned so much from my BEST lessons that they continued to talk about what they learned and how they could apply what they learned all the way up to the end of the year. And, isn’t that what is important? Or so I’ve been told. Our job is to educate students and to teach them how to apply their new found knowledge to the real-world. So, the state is telling me that I am an under-par teacher and that I have FAILED. I have never failed anything in my life and I strive to succeed in all that I do. Who are these nameless people to tell me that I am not a good teacher. I welcome you into my classroom to see what I do everyday. COme see if I am a failing teacher!

20 09 2006
ginacoggio

Hi Sue–
Thank you for writing (sorry it’s taken me so long to get back to you!) I feel EXACTLY how you feel. Had I stayed in Connecticut this year, I’m not sure I would be so thrilled to be back in the classroom. Have you given much thought to what you have to do next? When it’s due?
All of it is such a waste of time…and probably my biggest complaint is that it is so unlikely to change!

9 10 2006
Sue

Well, I continue to fight the results. I went to a meeting and the woman said that mine could have gone either way. It was said to have a lot of “2-ness” in it. Well I am exploring all avenues before I have to do it again. I will be making my last attempt this week in hopes that something will happen. What do I have to loose, I already have to do it again. If I do do it again, it is due Feb 1st. So I need to get the ball rolling. I have come to the conflustion that it isn’t worth harping over. I’ll do it again (good thing is I can use the same ideas I used in the past) and just change the lessons a bit.

What to do. What to do!!

12 10 2006
Louise

The same thing happened to me. I am a First Grade teacher who did not past Best. I was truly thrown when I received the results and still very confused about what the state wants from me. I have been told many times I do an excellent job in the classroom, handling difficult behaviors and helping 6 years bold become true learners. I do not think the State really knows what it wants to see and each teacher is left to the “judgement” of one person’s opinion. I became a teacher after many years in a different profession. THe idea of doing the whole process over makes me want to go back in time to that old life. And the whole process makes me crazy and angry as a taxpayer in the state of CT. All this money is being wasted running a program which no one really understands

16 10 2006
ginacoggio

Hi Louise,
You raise a really good point about the money. I wonder how much money was spent designing the BEST and I wonder how much is spent on it annually. I wonder if it’s possible to break the total cost down to see exactly how much taxpayer money is going to this program. I do not disagree that there should be some teacher accountability, and teacher assessment, in the state of Connecticut. I do disagree with the kinds of assessment they are asking of us. I think the assessment needs to be real-time. As you and I both know, as every other single teacher on the face of the planet, real teaching comes in the moment. A real good teacher is the kind who can juggle 30 variables in a single instant. No assessment, anywhere of any kind, other than the kind where an assessor sits IN the classroom, can judge that kind of talent.
And the more I think about this and write about it, the more frustrated I get that no one understands except for we teachers who have failed the BEST. No one understands, except for us, what it feels like to get such incredibly mixed messages. We hear from our students and from our administrators and from the parents of our students how well we are doing. And then to hear from the No Name BEST Scorers that we’re not good enough? It is a slap in the face coupled with complete confusion. Kind of like striking a dog just after it’s been rewarded with a treat. Such an ugly situation.

5 05 2007
laura

just read your blog looking for others who hate BEST. I have been fighting it for past two years. You can renew your inital cert. 5 times I think, I had to do so as mine expired in Jan. I just hate this! It has only taken away from my teaching to waste so much time on the portfolio….that and the CMT’s – thanks prez. bush.

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