Teachers to Education Reformers: Stop Evaluating Us With Test Scores

It’s not just kids getting burned out by standardized assessments.
(Photo: Getty Images)
Apr 21, 2016· 3 MIN READ
A veteran journalist and former White House correspondent for Politico, Joseph Williams is a freelance writer, blogger, and essayist in Washington, D.C.

It’s the definition of a paradox: Parents of kids attending struggling, high-poverty schools want high-quality teachers, and studies show those kids learn better when the person at the chalkboard looks like them, yet the best teachers of color at the worst-performing schools are bailing out of the profession at an alarming rate.

Now a new survey of teachers points to a key factor in the exodus: education officials basing teacher evaluations, promotions, and raises on their students’ standardized test scores.

RELATED: Battle Over Standardized Testing Exposes Deep Rifts in Education Reform Community

The survey, released this month by the nonprofit Network for Public Education, found that a majority of teachers who responded believe the growing popularity of test-based evaluation systems punishes teachers who work with the most vulnerable students.

At the same time, teachers also believe those evaluations—including value-added measures, a comparative examination of how much a student has learned from one year to the next—undermine teacher-student relationships and amplify a teach-to-the-test culture, hampering their efforts to provide quality education for kids who need it most.

“Teachers and principals believe that evaluations based on student test scores, especially Value Added Measures (VAM), are neither valid nor reliable measures of their work,” the survey reads. “Of the respondents, 83 percent indicated that the use of test scores in evaluations has had a negative impact on instruction, and 88 percent said that more time is spent on test prep than ever before.”

Meanwhile, evaluations linked to test scores are “having a disparate impact, contributing to a decline in teachers of color, veteran teachers, and those serving students in poverty,” according to the survey. Changes in evaluation practices, it continues, “have coincided with a precipitous drop in the number of black teachers in nine major cities.”

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While education reform activists argue that the evaluations are crucial to teacher accountability and ensuring students in underserved districts have high-performing educators, “they’re being used for punishing teachers and disincentivizing them to be in these schools,” says Carol Anne Spreen, a professor of education policy at New York University.

Though the tests are designed to measure student achievement, she adds, “they’re not being used in that way.”

The issue of test-based teacher evaluations has bubbled to the top of the ed-reform agenda because of state- and federal-level pressure on local school districts to hold teachers accountable. A majority of states and the District of Columbia require that test scores, or “student achievement,” be a “significant” or the “most significant” factor in teacher evaluations.

In New York state, home to the nation’s largest school district, administrators are setting up a database in which a range of tests—including SAT subject tests, Advanced Placement exams, and technical-school proficiency tests—would be used as a “model” system of assessing teachers.

In Texas, meanwhile, a teachers’ group sued the state to block implementation of a new system, tested in a yearlong pilot program, that would tie teacher evaluation to student performance on standardized tests.

Teacher evaluations were also at the root of 2014’s controversial Vergara v. California ruling in which the Court of Appeals for the state of California struck down several statues, effectively ending last-hired, first-fired layoff policies in the Golden State. At the heart of the case was the notion that it was too difficult to get rid of bad K–12 teachers thanks to inadequate, subjective paper evaluations, so those teachers were being erroneously granted tenure.

Although the Vergara ruling was overturned last Friday, Eric Hanushek, a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution at Stanford University, believes the case has influenced public opinion. “People are suddenly paying attention to the impact of ineffective teachers on students, about evaluation, about dismissal policies,” Hanushek, who testified on behalf of the plaintiffs, told the Los Angeles Times.

Yet an independent, large-scale analysis of test-based evaluations found a tenuous relationship at best between test scores and quality classroom instruction. The study, conducted in 2014, concluded that the use of test scores to assess teachers is an unreliable method that needs further study before being enacted in local districts.

Some analysts point to Atlanta as a cautionary tale. There, 10 educators at poor or underserved schools were convicted of rigging the standardized test scores of their students. It was perhaps the largest cheating scandal in American public education history—and, progressive ed-reform activists say, exhibit A of the evils of high-stakes testing.

Spreen isn’t surprised and argues that the new evaluation systems are a direct result of education policy reformers’ embrace of big data and high-stakes testing. It’s “part of a much bigger agenda,” she says. Besides putting more pressure on students already overwhelmed by timed, fill-in-the-bubble exams, teachers worried about evaluations may sacrifice engagement with students on the altar of hours and hours of “test prep.”

RELATED: Getting Low-Income Kids Ready for College Means Skipping the Test-Prep Status Quo

“What we’re hearing from teachers is it takes away all of the autonomy, all of the decision making, all of the relationship building” that’s the foundation for quality teaching, Spreen says. Rather than hands-on engagement with students, she says, in many schools test prep “is all done on a tablet.”

The true solution, she adds, is equal funding for affluent schools and struggling ones, proper support for teachers in poor or majority-minority districts, and access to quality resources for their students. Until that happens, Spreen says, the “brain drain” from underserved schools will continue.

“We’ve turned schools into test-prep [emporiums] and not increased ways to enrich the learning experience,” she says. “Kids in these schools are getting a really different kind of education.”