The Arbitrary Albatross: Standardized Testing and Teacher Evaluation

May 15, 2013
Photo credit: wfryer via flickr (CC BY 2.0)

On Chicago's streets and Hollywood's silver screens, education reform has been cast as a false dilemma between students and teachers. Reputable actresses and liberal mayors have both fallen prey. At the center of this drama lie teacher evaluations. A linchpin of the debate, they weigh especially heavily around the necks of educators like me.

Think: Shaky Foundation

With the arrival of spring, testing season is now upon us: America's new national pastime. I believe student results from standardized tests should not be used to evaluate teachers because the data are imprecise and the effects are pernicious. Including such inaccurate measures is both unfair to teachers and detrimental to student learning.

As a large body of research suggests, standardized test data are imprecise for two main reasons. First, they do not account for individual and environmental factors affecting student performance, factors over which teachers have no control. (Think: commitment, social class, family.) Second, high-stakes, one-time tests increase the likelihood of random variation so that scores fluctuate in arbitrary ways not linked to teacher efficacy. (Think: sleep, allergies, the heartache of a recent breakup.)

High-stakes assessments are also ruinous to student learning. They encourage, at least, teaching to the test and, at most, outright cheating. This phenomenon is supported by Campbell's law, which states statistics are more likely to be corrupted when used in making decisions, which in turn corrupts the decision making process itself. (Think: presidential campaigns.)

As a teacher, if my livelihood is based on test results, then I will do everything possible to ensure high marks, including narrowing the curriculum and prepping fiercely for the test. The choice between an interesting project and a paycheck is no choice at all. These are amazing disincentives to student learning. Tying teachers' careers to standardized tests does not foster creative, passionate, skillful young adults. It does exactly the opposite.

Evaluation and Accountability

The Atlanta cheating scandal is a stark illustration. A dispositive result of the testing obsession, it's an outcome as predictable as it is tragic. When bonuses and continued employment are largely determined by a single test, there is a perverse incentive to manipulate the system. Teachers and administrators are charged as felons for doctoring answer booklets; educators face jail time. We don't just think high-stakes testing leads to cheating. We know it does.

Fortunately, this is not an issue in my district. It remains a wonderful place to teach. But over half the states and the District of Columbia now use high-stakes tests to evaluate teachers, and this national trend must be reversed.

Because standardized tests are an inexact estimate of a teacher's ability, they are also unfair. By focusing on a sliver of the curriculum -- often rote facts --standardized tests do not measure meaningful understanding. (Think: Who was the last French monarch? versus How much violence is justified in revolution?) And unless you believe bubbling the letter of the best answer is crucial in the 21st century, standardized tests exclude evidence of important skill development. Indeed, my students learn much more than can be measured on a Scantron, and I want to be held accountable for it all.

Instead, we should consider reforming the observation method of evaluation, preserving student input, and incorporating a range of student work. Ironically, a focus on observation in performance review aligns with many other professions. Nurses, lawyers, even investment bankers are judged in large part by what their peers and supervisors see them doing. Plus when results are used, they are the results themselves -- not contorted approximations. Consider how you yourself are evaluated at work. I bet it's most likely through feedback and observation.

So, occasionally videotape a lesson, observe my classes, evaluate my students' work. If peers and administrators find my performance less than effective, prescribe some additional training. But please don't judge me based on student scores on standardized tests. I'll suffer, and so will the students.

Beginning the Conversation

Rather than focusing on evaluations altogether, let's professionalize the profession. We should create a rigorous entrance exam, an educational bar, as a gateway to licensing. Once teachers demonstrate mastery, they should be allowed to instruct according to expert standards -- just like in medicine, law and finance. If teaching is seen as exclusive, with formidable barriers to entry, it will become a more respected career, and teachers will earn the right and the latitude to practice.

If this makes sense, or if you're slightly curious, there are a number of steps you can take. Check out Learning is More Than a Test Score, Opt Out National and FairTest: The National Center for Fair and Open Testing.

Best of all, begin a conversation. Talk with friends and neighbors about this important issue affecting our communities and our country. Education is a lifelong pursuit, and teaching is a beautiful career. Let's decouple high-stakes testing from teacher evaluations for the sake of students and teachers alike.

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