Why Publishing a Teacher’s Standardized Test Results Is a Very Bad Idea
Using student standardized test scores to evaluate teachers, a trend gaining steam in a growing number of states in recent years as a result of the federal “Race to the Top” program, isn’t about improving education. It is, and always has been, about ranking, sorting, and shaming schools and educators. But, just as controversial testing regimens don’t accurately capture student learning or progress in the classroom, standardized, homogenized teacher evaluations don’t capture what teachers do for students. Teaching and learning is hardly a beauty pageant. Educators and kids are more than a set of scores.
Still, Americans like information for its own sake; we like to create and consume lists and databases, analyses and reviews, to stare at numbers before we make decisions even if, like Yelp reviews, they’re as predictive as tea leaves.
Though a Virginia parent sued for teacher evaluation and observations to be made available to the public, educators who have been in the classroom know that the information published is little more reliable than that on ratemyteacher.com (where, if you look me up, you’ll discover that I was simultaneously “the best,” “the worst,” “real cool,” and “hype,” as both compliment and insult). How does publishing a teacher’s standardized test results support students and teachers? How does it turn into anything more than an adult-world re-creation of class rank, where we are shamed into competing against each other instead of working together to actually improve? How does it do more for parents than chatting in the parking lot or posting on Facebook groups would do?
Evaluations based on testing don’t show the hours we teachers spend researching, planning, and reflecting on lessons that will never be listed on an evaluation form. The standardized tests on which our evaluations are based often don’t even align with the curricula we teach. And, instead of being an authentic element of ongoing professional growth and development, classroom observations have become just one more task for overburdened administrators to complete: even the best-intentioned principals often can’t find the time in their days to get into our classrooms to experience the interactions taking place among our students.
When I taught a reading program for 9th graders while still at Kensington CAPA High School in Philadelphia, my students began the year with an average reading level equivalent to a mid-term fourth grader. We created a safe space for learning, and worked hard, together; after a semester, most of my students improved by at least one grade level on reading assessments. The students felt pride in and ownership of their growth; my principal brought guests in to observe the great work that was going on in the program. But on state-mandated standardized tests, my students still scored “below basic” because even the two or three years of progress they made in one year meant that they were still reading at levels below what was expected of rising 10th graders. They were labeled failing; as their teacher, I was a failure, too. The tests could not show what was taking place in our classroom.
The woman dubbed “the worst teacher in New York” taught in just such a classroom, and the truth about her teaching couldn’t have been further from the picture the “rankings” (and then the press) painted of her. The tests and the evaluations that are based on them are unable to accurately portray what happens in classes and schools where students are mobile, speaking different languages, coming and leaving at different times during the school year, where students are already performing far above or below grade level, or where poverty is a factor in students’ readiness for school and the resources available in schools themselves.
Just as all children are more than the sum of their test scores, so are their teachers. If you want to understand what’s going on in your child’s classroom, there are countless ways for parents and families to learn more and become more engaged in their childrens’ education. If we work together – if you don’t listen to advocates who want the public to view teachers as the enemy in the battle to educate children –sharing notes and communicating about your child (and about the work he or she is doing in my class ), we can help your child succeed in my class and outside it. You’ll learn far more about me and about your child in my class from talking to me than looking up some unreliable, meaningless standardized test score online.
My colleagues and I actually crave feedback and opportunities to grow; we want professional observation and evaluation to be more in depth, intensive and useful. Our unions are leading the charge on this front, researching, developing training and models of effective teacher evaluation. We are constantly seeking better methods of helping our students. There are effective ways to engage with peers and principals to delve deeply into goals and practices in the classroom, and when we invest our time and resources into these best practices, teachers and students benefit.
But we must resist the urge to artificially simplify those necessarily complex and time consuming evaluations just to feed the data monster with statistics and test scores. Information is important, but context is everything – which is something we’d love to teach your kids, too, if we could only find some time in between test prep sessions.