Teaching Profession Opinion

Merit Pay: A Perspective From the Classroom

By Elizabeth Jackson Sterling — January 10, 2011 6 min read
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By the time the state test came around last year in March, my 8th grade students groaned in disgust. All of them had already taken two other standardized tests and some had taken three. One of my brightest students even tried to stage a revolt on the third day of the five days of state testing in my classroom. “This test is so stupid. It doesn’t mean anything. We already know our high school placement. It has no effect on our future at all. Why should we even try?” I cut him off before he could go any further, hoping that his insurrectionist ideas wouldn’t infect any of my other students.

The unfortunate truth of his statements puts teachers like me in a very awkward position. I told my class that these scores would “go on their record"—which, I suppose, is true—and made sure that the rabble-rouser didn’t get another word in before I quickly started reading the testing instructions. But if I were honest with my students, I would have to say, “It’s true, you will be well into your freshman year before I even know how you did on this test, and yes, the high school doesn’t even look at these scores. So, you’re right that they have no bearing on your future, but they have quite an effect on mine. So, kids, do your best for me, okay? Take it seriously and remember what I taught you. My job and my raise depend on how you do.”

Merit pay—for better or worse—seems to be the new frontier of education reform. Just last year, my district rushed to implement a new evaluation system directly linked to student achievement. Half of my evaluation is based on how my students perform. Those outside of a classroom find the idea only logical. Most believe that teachers will be motivated to work harder to get those test scores up if they know their pay depends, at least partially, on student achievement. Others say, quite rightly, that something fishy is going on if students spend a year in a teacher’s classroom and don’t show growth. The logic is sound, but the implementation gets a little fuzzy.

For example, what is the measure of student achievement for the physical education teacher or the music teacher? How about the school social worker or speech pathologist? Can their merit be equitably evaluated against the merit of the reading teacher or math teacher whose evaluations are based on students’ standardized test data? Or is the truth of the matter that we don’t really care how our kids do in music or physical education or how well they meet their social work or speech goals as long as they can read and do math “at grade level?”

My district’s solution was to allow each department, other than reading and math, which already administer multiple standardized tests, to create its own pre- and post-assessment to measure student growth. So you can see the disparity: While the social studies and Spanish teachers know exactly what is on their pre- and post-assessments, we reading and math teachers scamper to align our curriculum as best we can to the standardized tests we can neither read nor control.

Inconsistent Results

Then there is the abundance of test scores available to evaluators of reading and math teachers. Please step into my classroom again. At the beginning of the school year, my students took the Measures of Academic Progress (MAP) test, a standardized reading test required for all middle school students in our district. In December, they took the EXPLORE test, their high school placement test. Any student who scores below 50 percent nationally on the EXPLORE test has to retake another version of the MAP test they had taken in the fall to see if they could score above 50 percent, and therefore test out of remedial reading in high school.

One of my students scored 46 percent nationally in reading on his EXPLORE high school placement test in December, and then the following month scored 95 percent on his retake MAP test. In December, he was going to be placed in remedial reading; by January, he had tested into high honors.

I would love to say that my month of teaching is what accounted for this student’s dramatic improvement, but I don’t have a God complex. There are far too many variables involved to tease out exactly why this 14-year-old student did not meet standards one day and then exceeded them another. Maybe he was tired on the Saturday morning that he had to take the placement test, and counted on his second chance to show his ability. Maybe the new format of the first test threw him, and the familiar format of the MAP test, a test he had taken many times, allowed him to show his knowledge. Whatever the reason, I was left wondering how my evaluators would view my student’s miraculous 49 percent increase in reading achievement in a month as a measure of my merit. Do I get to take credit for this gain? What would happen to me, I wondered, if this student blew off his end-of-the-year MAP test and my evaluator’s comparison of his fall to spring growth actually showed regression?

As I analyzed my end-of-year data, I found other interesting and alarming patterns. The same high-flying student who griped aloud about the state tests “not meaning anything” in March actually did worse on that MAP test than he did in the fall. After the test was over and his score appeared on the screen, he had raised his hand for me to come record it. “Oh, Ms. Jackson, I have a headache and I could not focus on this test.” He sunk in his chair. “I’m pretty sure I did worse than I did last time. Oh well. It doesn’t really matter though, right?” What was I supposed to say? “Maybe not to you, kid!”

Sure enough, this bright boy, along with a handful of my other highest scoring students, dropped a few percentage points from fall to spring. After a year of my instruction, they were no longer 98th percentile in reading; now, they were 95th. Considering that they all had their schedules for the straight honors track in high school, I can only assume that none of them were too worried about the drop.

Incidentally, my student with the 95 percent MAP score in January was back down in the 50’s by May, so he also appeared to regress under my tutelage. All in all, the majority of my students, especially the lowest ones, showed growth, but an objective number cruncher could draw a lot of different conclusions about me from the lists of names and numbers that were faces and personalities to me. I joked with my colleagues: “Well, most of my kids got smarter, but I definitely made a few of them dumber.”

Lies and Fear

I sometimes struggle to find the right way to do my job—the way that I know is good for kids—in this new age of accountability. How do I convince my students that these tests really matter, when, in fact, almost none of them matter to them or their future? Do I try to guilt them with, “Do it for me; do it so I’ll get a good evaluation and a raise”? Do I lie to them and tell them something bad will happen to them, like retention or summer school, if they don’t do well? I get caught up in the disgruntled banter of, “Heck, if I’m going to get a bad evaluation because kids blow these tests, let’s find a way to make them care!” when the truth is that I think kids have enough on their plates trying to survive middle school.

I believe in the American education system. Unlike in Europe, where tests you take when you are 14 do dictate much of your future, we have been the country where you can redirect your future and get an education at any age. We have been the country that believes that a free education system has the responsibility to educate the whole child—to teach them music and sports and citizenship, not just reading and math.

I fear for the future of our system as much as I fear for the future of my job. The greatest falsehood about education being sold to the American public right now is that merit pay will get rid of bad teachers and attract the best and the brightest into the field. Would you sign on to have the test scores of a handful of kids dictate your career success?

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