Opinion
Teaching Profession Commentary

Test Results and Drive-By Evaluations

By Thomas Toch — March 04, 2008 4 min read

New York City Schools Chancellor Joel I. Klein wants to rate teachers in the nation’s largest school system on the basis of their students’ test scores. It’s a radical idea in public education (where teachers’ credentials have always mattered more than their performance), and the stakes are high: The nation spends $400 billion a year on public school teachers’ salaries and benefits.

Klein and his deputy, Christopher Cerf, see a clear logic in giving student test scores a role in teacher evaluations: It’s inexpensive and easy to administer and seemingly measures what matters most—student achievement. The vast majority of public school teachers are paid strictly on the basis of their seniority and the number of college credits they’ve racked up, rather than for their performance in the classroom, and Klein and Cerf want to change that, and rightly so.

But standardized-test scores aren’t the simple solution they seem to be. For one thing, only about half of public school teachers teach the subjects, or at the grade levels where students are tested, eliminating the prospect of a system that’s applied fairly to all teachers.

A second problem is that most standardized tests in use today measure only a narrow band of mostly low-level skills such as recalling or restating facts, rather than the ability to analyze information and other advanced skills. As a result, the tests tend to privilege low-level pedagogy, leaving the best teachers, those with wider teaching repertoires and the ability to move students beyond the basics, at a disadvantage, while putting pressure on the entire school system to focus on low-level skills.

To get a fuller and fairer sense of performance, evaluations should focus on teachers’ instruction—the way they plan, teach, test, manage, and motivate.

And then there’s the daunting challenge of separating out individual teachers’ impact on their students’ reading and math scores from the myriad other influences on student achievement, and the difficulty of drawing the right conclusions about teacher performance from very small numbers of student test scores, a particular challenge in elementary schools, where teachers work with a single classroom’s worth of students most of the day.

For these reasons, test scores should play a supporting rather than a lead role in teacher evaluations, and school systems should use schoolwide scores in their evaluation calculations, rather than individual teachers’ scores, a strategy that would also encourage staff members to collaborate rather than compete.

What we really need to do to ratchet up scrutiny of teachers, in New York and nationwide, is to take observations of their work with students in classrooms far more seriously. The typical teacher evaluation in public education today consists of a single, fleeting classroom visit by a principal or other building administrator untrained in the process, wielding a checklist of classroom conditions and teacher behaviors that often don’t even focus directly on the quality of teacher instruction (being presentably dressed, for example).

Not surprisingly, these drive-by evaluations are mostly meaningless. A recent study of the Chicago school system by the nonprofit New Teacher Project found that 88 percent of the city’s 600 schools did not issue a single “unsatisfactory” teacher rating between 2003 and 2006, including 69 schools deemed by the city to be failing educationally. To their credit, Chancellor Klein and his deputy are trying to address this educational malpractice.

But we need to strengthen evaluations of teachers’ classroom work, not merely work around them. To get a fuller and fairer sense of performance, evaluations should focus on teachers’ instruction—the way they plan, teach, test, manage, and motivate.

Evaluations should be based on clear, comprehensive standards of strong teaching practice that have emerged in recent years. And they should encompass multiple observations by multiple evaluators, with a substantial role going to teams of trained school system evaluators free of the inclinations to favoritism and conflicts of interest that plague evaluations by principals—and that led to the rise of credential- and seniority-based pay scales in public education 80 years ago.

Evaluations should be based on clear, comprehensive standards of strong teaching practice that have emerged in recent years.

Such evaluations are more labor-intensive, and thus more expensive, than principal drive-bys or evaluations based on test scores, and so they are tougher to implement for administrators trying to bring about change on the scale required in large urban school systems. But it’s an investment worth making, because teacher evaluation has a larger role to play than merely weeding out bad teachers.

Comprehensive evaluation systems focused on improving teachers’ performance signal to teachers that they are professionals doing important work, and in so doing help make public school teaching more attractive to the sort of talent that the occupation has struggled to recruit and retain.

As one measure of the importance of creating a more professional working environment in teaching, Public Agenda and the National Comprehensive Center for Teacher Quality found in a national survey of public school teachers last year that, if given a choice between two otherwise identical schools, 76 percent of secondary teachers and 81 percent of elementary teachers would rather be at a school where administrators supported teachers strongly than at one that paid significantly higher salaries.

Most teachers and their unions reject the idea of being judged—or paid—individually on the basis of their students’ test scores. The United Federation of Teachers, which represents 74,000 New York City teachers, has vowed to fight Chancellor Klein’s plan “on all grounds—educational, legal, and moral.”

But in schools that combine test-score calculations with classroom observations that go far beyond today’s superficial principal checklists, opposition to including student test scores in teacher ratings drops off dramatically.

Related Tags:

A version of this article appeared in the March 05, 2008 edition of Education Week as Test Results and Drive-By Evaluations

Events

This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Sponsor
Student Well-Being Webinar
How Districts Are Centering Relationships and Systemic SEL for Back to School 21-22
As educators and leaders consider how SEL fits into their reopening and back-to-school plans, it must go beyond an SEL curriculum. SEL is part of who we are as educators and students, as well as
Content provided by Panorama Education
This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Sponsor
Student Achievement Webinar
The Fall K-3 Classroom: What the data imply about composition, challenges and opportunities
The data tracking learning loss among the nation’s schoolchildren confirms that things are bad and getting worse. The data also tells another story — one with serious implications for the hoped for learning recovery initiatives
Content provided by Campaign for Grade-Level Reading
Student Well-Being Online Summit Student Mental Health
Attend this summit to learn what the data tells us about student mental health, what schools can do, and best practices to support students.

EdWeek Top School Jobs

Teacher Jobs
Search over ten thousand teaching jobs nationwide — elementary, middle, high school and more.
View Jobs
Principal Jobs
Find hundreds of jobs for principals, assistant principals, and other school leadership roles.
View Jobs
Administrator Jobs
Over a thousand district-level jobs: superintendents, directors, more.
View Jobs
Support Staff Jobs
Search thousands of jobs, from paraprofessionals to counselors and more.
View Jobs

Read Next

Teaching Profession Opinion What Can We Do to Help the Well-Being of Teachers?
A Seat at the Table focused on the social-emotional well-being of teachers during the pandemic. Here's what we learned from the guests.
1 min read
Sera   FCG
Shutterstock
Teaching Profession Nearly 9 in 10 Teachers Willing to Work in Schools Once Vaccinated, Survey Finds
Nearly half of educators who belong to the National Education Association have gotten at least one dose of the COVID-19 vaccine.
4 min read
Nurse Sara Muela, left, administers the Johnson & Johnson COVID-19 vaccine to educator Rebecca Titus at a vaccination site setup for teachers and school staff at the Berks County Intermediate Unit in Reading, Pa., on March 15, 2021.
Nurse Sara Muela, left, administers the Johnson & Johnson COVID-19 vaccine to educator Rebecca Titus at a vaccination site set up for teachers and school staff in Reading, Pa., on March 15.
Matt Rourke/AP
Teaching Profession Q&A Nation's Top Teachers Discuss the Post-Pandemic Future of the Profession
Despite the difficulties this school year brought, the four finalists for the National Teacher of the Year award say they're hopeful.
11 min read
National Teacher of the Year Finalists (clockwise from top left): Alejandro Diasgranados, Juliana Urtubey, John Arthur, Maureen Stover
National Teacher of the Year Finalists (clockwise from top left): Alejandro Diasgranados, Juliana Urtubey, John Arthur, Maureen Stover
Courtesy of CCSSO
Teaching Profession Teachers Are Stressed Out, and It's Causing Some to Quit
Stress, more so than low pay, is the main reason public school teachers quit. And COVID-19 has increased the pressure.
7 min read
Image of exit doors.
pavel_balanenko/iStock/Getty