Cities and states are starting to rely heavily on students' test scores as indicators of their teachers' success, but educators worry current tests do not provide a fair gauge of their actual effect on student progress. Parents of school-age kids just want to know that their children have quality teachers.
Sarah Paulson, a mother of two in Portland, Ore., whose oldest child is in second grade, is one of those parents. "It is important to me, as a parent, to know that I am entrusting my kids to effective teachers," Paulson says.
Some education reformers believe greater teacher accountability for student progress is overdue and that decisions about teacher compensation and job security should be closely tied to the test performance of their students. Others, including many teachers and their unions, say the tests narrow the curriculum and are not fair measures of success. They are concerned that using test scores to determine compensation and job security will reduce access to top teachers in poverty-stricken areas.
"Reformers can certainly point to teachers who say that the pressure of standardized testing has been useful, has forced them to pay attention to students they previously ignored and could rid their schools of lazy and incompetent teachers," writes Richard Rothstein for The Economic Policy Institute blog.
However, basing teacher evaluation on student testing can create incentives for teachers and schools to focus too heavily on tested subjects, Rothstein said. Instruction in history, the sciences, the arts, music and physical education suffers as a result, and teachers focus less on cooperative activities, character development and social skills.
Critics also believe an over-reliance on test scores deters good teachers from working in areas of high poverty where student test scores remain stubbornly low. According to retired principal Leon Hundall, quoted in the Grio, the test-score stubbornness is partly due to overcrowded classrooms and "deplorable" conditions in the poorest areas.
This is one reason Lindsey Burke, writing for the National Review, advocates value-added evaluations. She writes, "Teacher evaluations should be based in part on student performance on tests, using a value-added model that takes extraneous factors such as socioeconomic status into account."
Value-added evaluation is a controversial method for measuring teacher success in a given year by comparing students' end-of-year test scores with their scores from the end of the previous year. The model links teacher performance to student test scores and attempts to compensate for the effect of socioeconomic status through the use of complex algorithms.
Research shows that student achievement is influenced by much more than an individual teacher, but value-added evaluations fail to take other factors into account, said Stanford University professor Linda Darling-Hammond during a 2011 briefing to Capitol Hill policymakers. According to her, those factors can include home-life challenges, student aptitude, health and attendance, peer culture and prior teachers and schooling.
Annual tests also fail to account for summer learning loss, which disproportionately affects low-income kids. Tests measure growth from one end of the year to the next and do not account for backsliding or improvement over the summer months when teachers are not with their students.
Furthermore, current tests align to grade-level expectations, rather than actual student growth. If an incoming fourth-grade student is reading at a first-grade level in September but rises to a third-grade level by June, that student has made two years of progress but will still test well below grade level on an end-of-year test.
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Public schools in Ann Arbor, Mich., are working to increase the accuracy of student testing through computer adaptive testing that allows students to demonstrate their actual academic level, regardless of their official grade level. Shifting to computer adaptive testing could help teachers identify specific areas for improvement for each of their students. By administering these tests at the beginning and end of each school year, teachers, districts and cities can more fairly measure actual student gains per year, giving families such as the Paulsons better information about the quality of their students' teachers.