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Y. professor finds that evaluating teachers based on test scores has flaws

Published: Monday, Dec. 27 2010 11:13 p.m. MST

PROVO — The constant push for education reform has teachers feeling the pressure.

A recent study by Lars Lefgren, an associate professor of economics at BYU, questions the importance of evaluating teachers based on student test score performance. Lefgren found that "most of the gains from a highly rated teacher vanish quickly. In reading, 87 percent of the benefit fades after one year. In math, 73 percent fades after one year."

Lefgren worries that the policy push toward evaluating teachers based on student test scores has resulted in more attention being placed on subjects that are tested. As a result, kids are missing out on learning in areas that aren't tested, like art and creative writing.

The study also found that the emphasis placed on certain subjects has a short-term payoff.

"What we did in our study, we said, we have these teachers who have some systematic ability to increase test scores. If (a child) gets one of those teachers who bumps up your test scores, is that gain and achievement permanent or sort of transitory?"

When teachers focus excessively on testing and test scores, they are really focusing on an aspect of teaching that yields transitory benefits as opposed to permanent benefits, Lefgren said.

Lefgren also found that these evaluations may be unfair because one teacher may have more disadvantaged students than a teacher of similar skill with more advantaged kids — especially if the gains are transitory.

A study Lefgren did a few years ago looked at which teachers parents requested for their children. The teachers who were most popular with parents were interpersonal teachers, capable of creating good relationships with students and with strong classroom management skills. Those types of skills are not highly correlated with evaluations based on test scores, Lefgren said.

Lefgren noted that many parents would be surprised at who evaluations based on test scores declare as a good teacher. "They would be like, "Oh, her? That isn't who I want for my kid," said Lefgren. Some might argue that parents don't know what they are talking about—but Lefgren noted that parents have a good idea of whether their kids are engaged, happy to go to school and excited about the material presented.

If the test scores are permanent and the teacher transforms a student into a high performer, then these types of evaluations, which can result in rewards and sanctions, can be helpful indicators of progress because test scores aren't just bumped up for one year. The teacher has transformed a low achieving student into a high achieving one. But because this is typically not the case, Lefgren said that these evaluations should only be considered a small piece of how teacher effectiveness is viewed.

e-mail: hloftus@desnews.com

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