Questioning the ‘Rigor’ of Teacher Evaluations

By Liana Loewus — February 22, 2012 1 min read
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Aaron Pallas, Professor of Sociology and Education at Teachers College, Columbia University, makes the argument on his blog that, within current discourse about teacher evaluation, the word rigor “is getting distorted almost beyond recognition.”

In science, he writes, rigor is determined by a study’s design and method for analyzing data. A study is rigorous if the scientific claims are backed by strong evidence—regardless of the content of those claims. However, when it comes to teacher-evaluation talk, he says, a system is deemed rigorous if it rates many teachers as “ineffective” and very few as “highly effective” (or whatever the language may be). That is, the rigor is dependent on the outcome. He goes on to say that “describing a teacher-evaluation system as rigorous hides the fact that the criteria for assigning teachers to performance categories—either for subcomponents or for the overall composite evaluation—are arbitrary.” That is, there’s no scientific basis for determining the score a teacher needs to be placed in a category. Pallas continues:

In fact, the cut-off separating "developing" from "effective" changed last week as a result of an agreement reached between the New York State Education Department and the state teachers' union—not because of science, mind you, but because of politics.

It’s an interesting semantic argument. But I wonder if there’s an assumption being made that the scientific use of the word is the intended—or proper—use. Is it possible that the word rigor means something different within education, and not just in the context of teacher-evaluation systems? Consider these Education Week headlines from the last year:

More States Strengthening Rigor of Assessments

Analysis Raises Questions About Rigor of Teacher Tests

The first headline is about state-standardized tests and the second about state-required teacher licensing exams. In both cases, rigor refers to the cutoff scores for passing—not the test design or amount of evidence to back the outcome. It’s the same use of the term that Pallas claims is misleading in discussing teacher evaluations.

Or perhaps Pallas would argue we here at Ed Week are using the term wrong as well. Feel free to chime in, as usual.

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