Test Scores Don't Define a Good Teacher

How can we evaluate teachers based on a flawed system of testing?

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    NEWSLETTERS

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    391429 06: A young student in Ms. McFaul''s second grade Early Intervention Bilingual class looks closely at a math exam during a summer school June 3, 2001 at Brentano Academy in Chicago. More than half of Chicago''s 430,000 public school students must attend summer school this year before they can go on to the next grade, Chicago Public School officials say. Former Chicago schools chief Paul Vallas said about 245,000 pupils failed to score high enough on the Iowa Tests of Basic Skills to be promoted. (Photo by Tim Boyle/Getty Images)

    One of the proposed reforms among Governor Cuomo's new program to improve education in New York state is to use standardized test scores as a big part -- 40 percent -- of evaluating teacher performance. 

    But how can the state base teacher performance on a system of testing that itself is terribly flawed?

    After the Bloomberg administration touted rising test scores for years, the Board of Regents conceded that the bar had been set too low, so educational officials raised the standard on what constituted “proficiency” in both Math and English.

    Under the new standard of proficiency, student performance plummeted.  In 2009, 77 percent of students were considered proficient in English tests and 86 percent in Math tests.  In 2010, only 53 percent of students were considered proficient in English.  The math scores also dropped from 86 percent proficient in 2009 to 61 percent in 2010.

    In plain language: the educators in power had misled the public, parents and kids by touting phony test scores as progress.  Was it a mistake or willful?

    That’s hard to say -- but it would appear that political considerations might have played a part in the fraudulent test scores. Mayor Bloomberg and former New York City Schools Chancellor Joel Klein constantly cited the rising test scores as indicative of the great progress in educating our children. 

    I asked Diane Ravitch, an educational scholar and writer, what she thought of the proposal, in the Regents-backed Cuomo program, to evaluate teachers by counting student performance in test scores as 40% of a teacher’s rating.

    “I question the absolute faith in test scores as a measurement of student achievement," she said. “As if test scores are a scientific measurement. They’re not designed that way and the student tests are not designed to measure the ability of teachers.”

    Just last year, she pointed out, Albany declared the old test scores invalid -- and now we’re using them again.

    “Teachers who take on the challenge of trying to help children with serious learning disabilities are bound to score poorly alongside teachers who deal with most children" Ravitch said. "And teachers who teach gifted children are bound to show less improvement than others, because their children are already so proficient.”
     
    “It seems clear also that, in quest of favorable ratings by their principals, many teachers will teach to the tests. And that’s not a sound educational principle.” 

    The governor seems to have fallen for the notion that grading teachers and students is like keeping baseball statistics. But education is not a ball game. The empirically minded politicians like Mayor Bloomberg seem to believe it is.

    Education depends on many factors, not the least of which is whether a child is brought up in poverty or whether his or her parents are deeply involved in their school career. Teachers, of course, are vital to educational progress but the inspiration a good teacher can give to a child can’t be measured in numbers. Batting averages don’t cut it for teachers.

    What a good teacher can bring to a child is the excitement of learning. A good teacher can inspire a student to seek more knowledge. The magic of the learning process can’t be measured by mere numbers.