"A child's learning is the funtion more of the characteristics of his classmates than those of the teacher." James Coleman, 1972

Wednesday, July 06, 2011

Teacher Evaluations Based on Test Scores: Bad Idea and Worse Policy

Esperanza never got to give her speech in the fake teacher forum that she drove over an hour to get to, but I think she has her say here today in the Worcester Telegram:

In the new state regulations for evaluation of educators, approved on June 28, one of the three measures that will be used to evaluate teachers includes “state-wide growth measure(s) where applicable, including MCAS Student Growth Percentile and Massachusetts English Proficiency Assessment (MEPA).”

How much student growth, or value-added, test scores will count in the proposed teacher evaluation system remains unknown, even though other states like Tennessee that have already adopted similar policies in order to cash in on Race to the Top funds, count student test scores as 50 percent of teachers’ professional evaluations.

Evaluating teachers based on the results of the MCAS test is unfair and counterproductive. The reality is that high-stakes testing continues to narrow the school curriculum and to fragment subjects, as pointed out in a meta-analysis published in “Educational Researcher.”

A study released in May by the National Academy of Science hammers home the extremely limited value of a decade of high-stakes incentives and sanctions.

“Some incentives hold teachers or students accountable,” the study press release reads, “while others affect whole schools. School-level incentives like those used in No Child Left Behind produce some of the larger achievement gains, the report says, but even these have an effect size of only around .08 standard deviations — the equivalent of moving a student currently performing at the 50th percentile to the 53rd percentile [from 2002-2010].”

What a decade of high-stakes testing has accomplished is to serve as an effective tool for labeling as failures high poverty schools with low test scores, and converting them into charter schools, which have been shown in separate research studies from UCLA and the University of Colorado to have large segregative effects when compared to matched public schools.

Using MCAS test scores to evaluate teachers adds even more emphasis to the high-stakes testing obsession, while opening the door for the creation of even more tests to measure test score growth in subjects not tested by MCAS.

Do we really need more emphasis on expensive testing at a time when communities can hardly afford to keep the doors open to schools and make payroll?

As a result of this new proposed plan, poor and minority populations are likely to have their access to high-quality educational opportunities further limited, as teachers who can choose will be more reluctant to teach classes with large numbers of poor students with low scores and high poverty.

In Richard Rothstein’s “Class and Schools,” he repeatedly points to the low-level instruction that is common in the segregated test prep curriculums for the poor, where children learn to take tests rather than to think, thus leaving them unprepared for challenging high school and college coursework.

Unfortunately, educational access for all children attending public schools has been diminished largely to a test score that, in fact, mirrors family income. This direct correlation between family income and test scores is demonstrated in separate analyses by Catherine Rampell for the Economix blog at the New York Times using SAT scores, as well as by Mel Riddile for NASSP using the international math PISA scores.

Under this new plan, teachers, in fact, will be under added stress to produce higher scores in order to maintain their job security and pay, which will compound the current pressure of keeping their schools and children from being labeled failures. Attention to children’s needs is likely to become secondary to teachers’ attention to test scores, thus causing a further erosion of the teacher-student relationship.

If this were not reason enough to recommend against the new teacher evaluation plan, there is the letter issued by National Research Council to the U.S. Department of Education, which warned Education Secretary Arne Duncan in 2009 about urging states to use value-added test scores to evaluate teachers:

“Too little research has been done on these methods’ validity to base high-stakes decisions about teachers on them. A student’s scores may be affected by many factors other than a teacher — his or her motivation, for example, or the amount of parental support — and value-added techniques have not yet found a good way to account for these other elements.”

Parents and grandparents should think hard about the shortcomings of evaluating teachers based on students’ test scores. This plan is a bad idea that will do nothing to raise achievement for those children held back by poverty or the ones who are currently thriving.

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