Using student test scores to evaluate teachers unfair

Graphic shows two students taking a test and a score sheet is in the background.
Graphic shows two students taking a test and a score sheet is in the background.

There are two ways to persuade people to do dumb things: Fill them with fear or dangle money in front of them.

The Obama administration is engaged in the latter. In the face of significant scientific evidence to the contrary, the U.S. Department of Education is pushing the states to evaluate teachers on the basis of student test scores by offering one-time dollars for doing so.

It's a bad idea gone viral, but money works. The California legislature realized that such evaluations were not valid and passed a law that prohibited them. But when the Obama administration tempted them with cash, they quickly went into session and abolished the law.

The Kentucky Department of Education is apparently developing a teacher-evaluation system partly based on test scores of students, just to grab some one-time money from Washington. Please, don't take the bait.

To understand why, let's look at the facts. Suppose you are a sixth-grade teacher, and some of your kids are fantastic readers. They score at the top of the annual standardized reading test. Did you mold them into world-class readers? Of course not. Their parents might be most responsible, or maybe a second-grade teacher spurred them on. Who knows, but it is certain that they did not become so adept because of you.

Or what about your students who can't compute six times five? They never learned multiplication tables in the second grade and have been mystified by anything mathematical since. But now they are your students and bomb out on the annual test. Did you cause the failing grades? Of course not. They were math averse long before coming into your class.

Then there is Billy, who refuses to study or do homework; Jose, who recently came to the United States and is just now learning English; and Jody, who has been brain-impaired from birth. Predictably, they all score poorly on the tests.

Using student test scores to evaluate you as a teacher would give you unfair credit for the stellar readers and unreasonably penalize you for the dismal scores of those slow in math, Billy, Jody and Jose. What could be more unfair?

There is another variation called "value-added" evaluation, which aims to estimate a teacher's effectiveness in raising students' standardized test scores. But this does not work, either. This score is an average of all the kids in your class. As a teacher, you have a different mix of students each year, some years better, some years not as capable. An Economic Policy Institute study of large school districts revealed that among teachers with the lowest 20 percent of value-added scores, only 36 percent remained among the lowest performers the following year. And among those in the top 20 percent, only 38 percent remained among the top performers the next year. If value-added was valid, great teachers would consistently be great and vice versa.

The elephant in the room is poverty. In every state and in virtually every school district, kids from poverty, on average, score well below middle-class children. This is because they generally begin school years behind and can never catch up. Most have seemingly insurmountable economic, social, environmental or health handicaps.

What this means is that if you teach in a middle-class neighborhood, your students will generally do well on the standardized tests. And if you teach in an inner-city or poverty-stricken area, your kids will almost surely not do as well, regardless of your teaching skills. The result is that good teachers will avoid teaching in poor areas. Worse, as was found in cities like Atlanta, teachers who feel that the system is unfair, are prone to fabricate student test scores to keep their jobs.

There is a better way to evaluate teachers.

A more sound system would include an annual peer-evaluation system in which senior teachers and principals sit in on junior teachers' classes and provide written guidance for improvement. Then give the marginal teachers assistance and a year to improve or find alternative employment.