The Test Generation: Can a Math Equation Measure How Much Students Are Learning-And How Well Teachers Are Teaching? Colorado Is about to Find Out

Article excerpt

On exam day in Sabina Trombetta's Colorado Springs first-grade art class, the 6-year-olds were shown a slide of Picasso's "Weeping Woman," a 1937 cubist portrait of the artist's lover, Dora Maar, with tears streaming down her face. It is painted in vibrant--almost neon--greens, bluish purples, and yellows. Explaining the painting, Picasso once said, "Women are suffering machines."

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.) A separate section of the exam asked students to write a full paragraph about a Matisse painting.

Trombetta, 38, a 10-year teaching veteran and winner of distinguished teaching awards from both her school district, Harrison District 2, and Pikes Peak County, would have rather been handing out glue sticks and finger paints. The kids would have preferred that, too. But the test wasn't really about them. It was about their teacher.

Trombetta and her students, 87 percent of whom come from poor families, are part of one of the most aggressive education-reform experiments in the country: a soon-to-be state-mandated attempt to evaluate all teachers--even those in art, music, and physical education--according to how much they "grow" student achievement. In order to assess 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.

All of this left Trombetta pretty frustrated, and on a November afternoon, she really wanted to talk. As she ate lunch (a frozen TV dinner) in her cheery, deserted classroom plastered with bright posters, she recounted the events of the past week. She liked the idea of exposing her young students, many of whom had never visited a museum, to great works of art. But, Trombetta complained, preparing the children for the exam meant teaching them reductive half-truths about art--that dark colors signify sadness and bright colors happiness, for example. "To bombard these kids with words and concepts instead of the experience of art? I really struggle with that," she said. "It's kind of hard when they come to me and say, 'What are we going to make today?' and I have to say, 'Well, we're going to write about art.'" Harrison District 2 spent about six months creating a test that turned out to be far too difficult for most first-graders, who are just learning to read full paragraphs, let alone write them. Yet the children's art-exam scores, along with results from classroom observations, will determine Trombetta's professional evaluation score and, consequently, her salary. If she "grows" her 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. 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.

Like many Harrison teachers, Trombetta isn't sure whether she wants to continue working in the district, despite the possibility of significant salary gains. She loves her school and its principal, and she supports evaluating teachers based, at least in part, on their ability to advance student achievement. But she's torn on the value of test prep: "I want to maintain a sense of integrity and be faithful to my values about art."

In the social sciences, there is an off-repeated aphorism called Campbell's Law, named after Donald Campbell, the psychologist who pioneered the study of human creativity: "The more any quantitative social indicator is used for social decision-making, the more subject it will be to corruption pressures and the more apt it will be to distort and corrupt the social processes it is intended to monitor. …