Teaching Profession

New Law Gives Fla. Teachers Bonuses Based on SAT Scores (Their Own)

By Ross Brenneman — July 10, 2015 3 min read
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When Florida Gov. Rick Scott signed his state’s $78.7 billion budget bill in late June, he gave approval to a $44 million item that gives bonuses to the state’s teachers.

The catch: Only teachers who rated at or above the 80th percentile in their high school SAT or ACT can qualify.

The program, formally known as the Best and Brightest Teacher Scholarships, was introduced into the budget by Rep. Erik Fresen, a Miami Republican. According to the Tampa Bay Times, Fresen got the idea after reading Amanda Ripley’s bestseller, The Smartest Kids in the Room. In addition to the test-score requirement, to receive the bonus, teachers would have to meet the state’s “highly effective” benchmark on their evaluations.

Teachers who meet both requirements would earn an extra $10,000 next year, for up to 4,400 teachers, at which point the allotment would decrease. Florida had 68,373 teachers rated highly effective last school year, according to the Times.

“It’s just another carrot, another incentive to try to keep the best teachers in the field,” Fresen told the Times, adding it could also attract top students to teaching. The program is only budgeted for one year.

Many have strongly criticized the program, either for basing bonuses off a test some teachers might have taken decades ago, or for not actually being an effective means of improving teacher retention.

“There are a lot of ways to help education, but this is not one of them,” Barry Dubin, executive director of the Sarasota Classified Teachers Association, told the Herald-Tribune. “Is it evil? No, but it’s terribly misguided. Anyone who would have given this a second thought would have thought of something better.”

Both the SAT and ACT are theoretical measures of readiness for college; they don’t actually measure real outcomes in higher education. A student could, therefore, have tested poorly but then been a star college student, for example.

Added to that, as the Times points, many community colleges use placement tests for admission, rather than the SAT or ACT, which means that teachers who went to community colleges may be disproportionately affected. And there’s the fact that white and Asian students perform better on average in the SAT and ACT. So teachers of color or those who grew up poor are statistically less likely to be eligible for this new scholarship, even if they ended up outperforming rich white students in higher education.

If teacher retention is the main goal for Fresen, there’s another problem: Research and anecdote both suggest that as important as salary is to teachers, working conditions matter just as much, if not more.

According to the Times, the state previously cut additional pay for teachers who attained National Board certification or obtained advanced degrees, both of which can boost teachers’ salaries in many other states.

The governor clearly thought the scholarship made sense, though; he used the line-item veto to carve out $461 million from the passed budget bill, but this program made the cut.

Here’s one interesting potential caveat though: I’m not a lawyer, but it doesn’t look like the law, as written, precludes a teacher from retaking the SAT or ACT and using the new score while applying to this scholarship. The deadline to file for the scholarship is Oct. 1; the SAT doesn’t have a test date before then, but the ACT does, on Sept. 12. And according to the ACT registration line, you can register for the ACT whenever you want. That seems like a long way to go for a shot at some extra state money—to pay for and take a long standardized test—but it could be possible.

Image: Florida Gov. Rick Scott addresses attendees during his Economic Growth Summit in Lake Buena Vista, Fla., in June. —Phelan M. Ebenhack/AP

More on Florida’s approach to education, and retention:

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A version of this news article first appeared in the Teaching Now blog.