The Massachusetts Board of Elementary and Secondary Education
Statement on Draft Regulations Regarding Diagnostic Assessments for Middle and High School Math Teachers
May 23, 2000
I have listened closely to the comments of teachers on this proposal and, in general, their criticisms fall into one of three categories. First, many teachers perceive the proposed assessment as punitive and demeaning. Second, teachers have complained that the targeting of schools with failure rates above 30 percent is unfair to those teachers working in communities with the greatest deficits and needs. And third, critics have argued that the real reason for poor student math performance is not a teacher's knowledge of her subject, but rather her method of teaching in the classroom. Let me address these concerns in reverse order.
With respect to whether subject mastery or pedagogical skill is more important, I have seen studies pointing in both directions. I tend to believe that subject mastery has been given short shrift over the years in teacher preparation programs. I also believe that the more complex and flexible teaching methods envisioned by our own frameworks, as well as NCTM, require higher levels of subject mastery than may have been the case in the past. Of course, commonsense tells us that both teaching skill and subject knowledge are important. Whether one is marginally more important than the other is a relatively minor point. As a practical matter, it is far more difficult, time consuming, and expensive to assess a teacher's pedagogical skill, than it is to assess her level of subject mastery. Assessing strengths and weaknesses in math knowledge and skill is something positive and useful that we can do now. Given the impending arrival of high-stakes testing for students and given the high failure rates in math, we have an obligation to do whatever we can, as soon as we can.
Many teachers have voiced concerns that this assessment plan is unfair to teachers in low-income and urban districts, where failure rates and educational challenges are consistently higher than in the wealthier suburbs. There are two points to be made here. First, the 30 percent threshold applies only to those schools that are not meeting their improvement expectations, as established by the school accountability program. As a result, even teachers in schools with very high failure rates will be exempt from the assessment, if their students' MCAS performance is getting better. Second, we have modified the proposed regulations to take this concern for fairness into account. Specifically, in calculating whether a school is above the 30 percent threshold, we will exclude special education students, students with limited English proficiency, and students who have not spent at least two years in the school. All three of these categories of students tend to experience relatively high failure rates and are found in disproportionately high numbers in low-income or urban districts.
Finally, I come to the issue that carries the greatest emotional weight: the perception that this proposal is punitive and demeaning to teachers. In responding, I will first repeat what I have said before on this point and what is explicitly in the regulations: these assessments are solely for the purpose of informing the course of professional development. Individual results will be confidential and may not be used as justification for any form of sanction against any teacher. We have also listened to the complaints and amended the proposed regulations to include a waiver provision, whereby the commissioner may exempt individual teachers from the assessment on the basis of previously demonstrated subject mastery or special circumstances that make the assessment immaterial or irrelevant. The purpose of this waiver provision is to ensure that we are not needlessly or thoughtlessly wasting people's time or insulting their intelligence. In addition, we have given the commissioner wide latitude in developing and implementing the assessment to allow for as much participation as possible from the field and to ensure that the assessment program provides the kind of information that will enhance professional development and contribute to improved student performance.
The overwhelming majority of teachers in Massachusetts are bright, talented and committed to their students, and I understand and respect the concerns that have been expressed by teachers regarding this proposal. It is because of those concerns that we have amended the draft regulations. Nevertheless, the criticisms do not outweigh the reality that we must address the low level of math performance with a sense of urgency. The students of the Commonwealth deserve nothing less.