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Although there is general consensus that the way teachers are currently evaluated needs to change, a broad spectrum of opinions exists about the most effective, productive way to bring innovation to the process. The current system, largely based on singular and fleeting observations, provides incomplete or inaccurate portrayals of a teacher’s skills and abilities. Teachers want a system that provides meaningful feedback, improves their practice, allows them to grow in the profession and ultimately enhances student learning. What they do not want — most importantly because it is detrimental to overall student achievement, and also because it is not conducive to their own development as professional educators — is a system based on the belief that the best way to determine teacher effectiveness is by looking only at students’ standardized test scores.
Research shows that using standardized tests scores to grade students and schools as a means to define effective pedagogy, results in teaching to the test and a narrowing of curriculum. Despite these facts, some misinformed proponents looking for easy answers are calling to use such measures to accomplish this goal, particularly the “value-added model.” In fact, the California Standards Test, on which value-added measures would be based, is not designed for that purpose. The test is designed to measure standards at each grade level, not continuous student growth from year to year. Indeed, the test is not even vertically aligned, meaning that it is nonsense to assume that a student’s performance on the test should be stable from one year to the next. Moreover, the radical instability in value-added measures of a teacher’s ability to teach standardized test subjects reflects what we all know to be true: a student’s performance on a standardized test is influenced by multiple factors, many entirely independent of the teacher who administered the test.
An April 3 article in Education Week, “Where Teachers Are Replaceable Widgets, Education Suffers,” describes “churn,” a circumstance evident in school systems throughout the country, as the “remarkable instability among school personnel that makes it nearly impossible to build a professional community or develop long-term relationships with students. It happens when teachers are treated like interchangeable parts who can be moved around cavalierly to plug a hole in a school schedule.” In the urban schools studied by the authors, for every two teachers who left the district or the profession during the study, another three were moved from subject to subject, grade to grade or school to school. So much for the non-existent teaching conditions necessary for value-added assessments to have any hope of validity.
In addition, research shows the many other factors that influence student success include poverty, hunger, homelessness, language skills, parental involvement and education, the learning environment, physical development and personal motivation. Do such factors contribute to student achievement on standardized tests? Absolutely! Are teachers alone responsible for these factors? Absolutely not!
The current state of the research on value-added measures is captured by the report “Getting Value Out of Value-Added.” The report, based on papers commissioned from 16 leading scholars in the field and a review of more than 50 studies, concluded that “the year-to-year stability of estimated teacher effects can be characterized as being quite low from one year to the next.” For that reason, there is widespread consensus that the value-added measures should not be used for high stakes decisions regarding teachers and must be used with care and prevision, as they generate results that are far too unstable to be considered fair or reliable.
The Economic Policy Institute has also released a research brief titled “Problems with the use of student test scores to evaluate teachers.” The report was co-authored by several well-respected education scholars convened by the institute, including Linda Darling-Hammond, Richard Rothstein and Diane Ravitch. The group concluded that “a review of the technical evidence leads us to conclude that, although standardized test scores of students are one piece of information for school leaders to use to make judgments about teacher effectiveness, such scores should be only a part of an overall comprehensive evaluation . . . For these and other reasons, the research community has cautioned against the heavy reliance on test scores, even when sophisticated VAM methods are used, for high stakes decisions such as pay, evaluation or tenure.”
Certainly, testing is an important tool for teachers to gauge where students are in the learning process, but it is not the only tool. Standards-based multiple sources of evidence about both teaching and student learning could include portfolios, checklists, lesson plans, observations, self-assessments, surveys, student work samples and the use of locally or teacher-developed assessments. In addition, evaluating the means by which teachers increase their knowledge and improve their professional practice is key to recognizing assessments, not as single events, but rather, as a process by which knowledge about instruction continues to grow and adapt to the needs of students and the classroom context.
Relying on student standardized test scores to define teacher quality is not just willfully ignorant; it is destructive to the profession and the educational process. The California Teachers Association knows that teacher quality is a result of the relationship among factors that include high certification standards and new teacher mentoring, strategic and ongoing professional development, peer assistance and support for teachers who are struggling, a learning-focused school environment and adequate fiscal resources. It is time to stop looking for the easy answers and start investing in the right ones. Our students, our teachers and our state deserve that much of an honest effort.
Dean E. Vogel is the president of the California Teachers Association.
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