Opinion
Accountability Opinion

The ‘Receptivity Factor’

By Davy McClay — March 14, 2001 5 min read
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Defining teacher accountability in terms of students’ test scores is problematic.

As an educator, I feel glad when I hear our new president vowing to be the “champion of education.” Prospects of a large budget surplus have enabled him, as well as his predecessor and his opponent in the recent presidential election, to engage in some previously unheard-of rhetoric in this area. Sharing in the possibilities they have outlined has been exciting. Up to a point. It appears now that a big part of the programs being promoted will involve holding us teachers more “accountable.” While I’m very much in favor of accountability, defining it in terms of my students’ test scores is problematic.

Test scores provide generalized indicators of how students are doing and where parents and teachers need to put their focus to ensure maximum benefit for each child. To politicians, though, test scores offer a nice, simple bottom line. They have fallen in love with test scores as a quick and easy measure of classroom effectiveness. Yet no reputable educational researcher would back wholeheartedly any claims that normative tests such as the Stanford Achievement Test-9th Edition, used here in California, are valid and reliable measures of “classroom learning.” Spokespersons for the test publishers might claim that their products are “the best,” but that dodges the question.

The metaphor undergirding our belief that teachers are accountable for students’ test scores is one from the world of business. Test scores are supposedly our “product” in education. But, to stretch that metaphor just a bit, the material we are given for production lacks any quality control. How raw or un-raw the material may be when it comes to us is anybody’s guess. Likewise, any changes that may occur with a child’s “rawness factor” during the course of a year is open to speculation.

There is usually a correlation between (a) a child’s receptivity to our curriculum and (b) the socioeconomic status of his or her parents.

The rawness factor of each child could be defined as the amount of receptivity the child has to the mainstream- oriented curriculum we teachers deliver. There is usually a correlation between (a) a child’s receptivity to our curriculum and (b) the socioeconomic status of his or her parents. Here is how it works: Higher-socioeconomic-status parents have been through the system and thus have the knowledge and ability to prewire their children’s brains in the home, so that they are able to be more receptive to the curriculum. The parents, after all, received largely the same curriculum when they were in school. Lower-socioeconomic-status parents, on the other hand, typically have not successfully maneuvered the system, and therefore are limited in their ability to prewire their children’s brains.

Since it is impossible to determine how “raw” or “un-raw” our students’ minds may be when they come to the classroom, there is no way to accurately determine how much teacher competence will be reflected in their test scores. So, if we continue the business metaphor, what we are doing amounts essentially to holding teachers accountable for somebody else’s preproduction—and without any system of accountability for these other parties. Such a practice would never pass muster under business management.


Nevertheless, I confess to believing intuitively that what I do has a great impact on my students’ scores. In my mind’s eye, I see the curriculum I’m delivering as so awesome that my 4th graders cannot fail to stomp any performance measure, including the next Stanford-9. I don’t know any other way to work. Like most of my colleagues, my optimism materializes anew each year, without a trace of memory betraying the dashed hopes of previous years (at least in terms of students “stomping” the test).

Many of my students do show significant gains in their test scores over the previous year. But how much of the increase is attributable to me? Often, teachers get all the credit as well as the blame. But that logic assumes that parental and other influences on a student’s academic performance remain static from year to year. These assumptions may be right. But they also may be wrong. How do we know?

How much of a test score, or a test-score increase or decrease, is attributable to children’s home-instilled “receptivity factor,” and how much is due to a teacher’s skill and delivery? There is no sound statistical method that can provide us valid and reliable answers to these questions.

The standard of accountability should be based on factors that teachers can directly control, such as our educational delivery skills.

We do need to hold our teachers accountable. But that can be done by measuring how well they do what they do. Teachers should be rewarded for engaging in delivery-enhancing specialized training, for earning classroom-related advanced degrees, for achieving National Board for Professional Teaching Standards certification. Even more important, teachers need to work together to implement peer reviews. Those who fare well on these should be rewarded. Those who do not should be remediated, if possible, and given opportunities for other employment if remediation is not successful. There also should be rewards for teachers who engage in special parent activities aimed at helping at-risk students enhance their receptivity to classroom learning. These are meaningful measures of accountability.

We teachers expect President Bush and everyone else to hold us accountable. But we want them to remember that there is no firm statistical foundation for basing that accountability on our students’ receptivity to the curriculum, as reflected in their test scores. The standard of accountability should be based on factors that teachers can directly control, such as our educational delivery skills.

And when we pass such accountability tests, we should be paid what highly skilled professionals deserve—and given the space and freedom to do our jobs, working hand in hand with parents.


Davy McClay is an elementary school teacher in Los Angeles and earned certification from the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards .

A version of this article appeared in the March 14, 2001 edition of Education Week as The ‘Receptivity Factor’

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