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Testing Teachers

By Walt Gardner — May 30, 2011 2 min read
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The news out of New York City and Los Angeles, homes of the nation’s largest and second largest school districts, respectively, was predictable. The two districts announced that they will use standardized tests to grade teachers, rather than merely to grade students. It was the inevitable next step in the obsession with these controversial instruments.

Let’s begin in New York City, where a law passed last year requires that teachers be graded from “ineffective” to “highly effective.” Teachers who are found “ineffective” for two consecutive years can be fired. Standardized tests given to students will determine 40 percent of the teacher’s rating. I still haven’t seen any evidence to justify this weight. Is there something magical about this number? According to The New York Times, city officials intend to place less emphasis on multiple choice tests and more on tasks (“Test for Pupils, But the Grades Go to Teachers,” May 24). But Kentucky used this approach, only to abandon it because results could not be compared from one year to the next.

Now let’s travel 3,000 miles to Los Angeles, where 39 high schools have been offered the opportunity to allow improvement in a student’s score on the California Standards Test, which is administered in May, to boost a student’s final grade in a class (“High schools offer grade boosts to students who improve test scores,” Los Angeles Times, May 24). But since a teacher’s evaluation is heavily tied to scores on the standardized test, the effect in Los Angeles is similar to the effect in New York even though the details differ slightly.

On the same day that the news was reported in The New York Times and Los Angeles Times, Education Week published a story that seven recently named Teachers of the Year wrote a letter to the New York State Board of Regents warning about the danger of evaluating teachers inordinately on standardized tests (“The Promise and Perils of Changing Teacher Evaluations”). They correctly understood the implications.

What to make of all this? I have no objection to the use of standardized tests to be one of multiple measures in evaluating teachers, although ideally these tests should be used only for diagnostic purposes as they are in Finland. What is clear is that the decision to use them in other ways is not being driven by evidence. Instead, it is increasingly being pushed by advocacy groups. I recently posted about the threat to public education posed by venture philanthropy (“The Octopuses in School Reform”). The latest news is further confirmation of the inordinate role that corporate reformers are playing in school reform. It’s an alarming trend that most Americans do not fully understand.

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The opinions expressed in Walt Gardner’s Reality Check are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.

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