Missing the Mark: The Use of Test Scores in Teacher/Principal Evaluations

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By Dr. Anael Alston

This winter, the New York Board of Regents — the body that provides oversight and direction to public education in New York State — imposed a four-year moratorium on the use of standardized achievement test scores as a significant part of teacher evaluations. Many viewed this action as a major step in the long-running battle against the misuse of student-assessment data. I see nothing more than a political punt. The state legislature’s election of Dr. Betty Rosa, a vocal critic of the reform efforts in New York, as the new chancellor of the Board of Regents brings us one step closer to ultimate victory.

Dr. Rosa’s selection provides clear evidence of how much parents, families, teachers, politicians, boards of education, and school/district leaders feel about the wave of education “reform” in New York State and the nation since the passage of No Child Left Behind (NCLB) in 2001. We may be missing the point.

The landscape of public education continues to evolve like an episode of House of Cards. Elected officials everywhere run for political cover. New York’s Governor Andrew Cuomo heeded the recommendations of the Common Core Task Force, while the Board of Regents took steps to slow down the implementation of the latest version of teacher/principal evaluations. These moves will lead to positive outcomes if they lead to the repeal or revision of New York Education Law 3012-d, which mandates that 50% of teachers’ and principals’ annual evaluations derive from state test scores and observations. Education Law 3012-d raised the use of state exam scores from 20% to 50% of teacher/principal measures of effectiveness.

Linking standardized test scores to calculations regarding educator effectiveness finds no basis in sound research. The exams themselves seem to lack both reliability and validity. If we want to improve education in America the way countries like Singapore, Poland, and Iceland transformed their educational systems, we need other means to accomplish that goal.

The list of reasons for opposing the use of test scores as a major criterion for evaluating educators and school systems includes the following:

  1. It minimizes the “art” and professionalism of teaching.
  2. It represents a preemptive strike by those in government and in the private sector who want to privatize public education and to limit teacher rights under the tenure laws.
  3. It is only one of many factors that measure student achievement
  4. It only provides a snapshot of student performance on any given day.
  5. It is antithetical to the core educational goal of Teaching for Understanding.

As school and district leaders, we received a mandate to make something work that we oppose. Our districts spent tens of thousands of dollars to train teachers and supervisors to implement a failed system. We knew that those resources could be spent to improve teaching and leadership skills and to provide additional supports for students who need them.

Parents, families, teachers, boards of education, and school/district leaders united in opposition to the previous statute, Education Law 3012-c, which required that 20% of teacher evaluations to be tied to test scores. The response from Albany? The most recent law tying 50% of evaluations to test scores. Did anyone hear us?

In graduate school, we studied the art, the process, requisite relationships and underlying principles of teaching and learning. As a building principal, I worked with Dr. Larry Aronstein, a superintendent with a deep background in curriculum design and development. He emphasized the importance of teaching for understanding and implemented practices that brought it to fruition as part of the long-term strategy to transform a high-poverty, low achieving, urban-suburban school district on Long Island. The district received numerous state and national awards for our dramatic turnaround over a five-year period. Teaching for Understanding — a notion that we don’t hear about in the ongoing dialogue over education policy — drove that progress.

Students must develop new knowledge and skills. They must be knowledgeable in all the subject areas: math, reading/writing, and the effective use of foreign languages—including the emerging languages of technology. Understanding goes beyond memorizing and recognizing. Young people can recite endless facts and demonstrate routine skills with little understanding, which requires nuance.

Knowledge and skills cannot be acquired without understanding underlying concepts. The Common Core math developers got it right. Teaching math at the conceptual level first better positions our students to pursue higher-level mathematics. We know about the shortage of qualified candidates to fill positions in engineering and technology. Rote knowledge defies active use, and routine skills (e.g. invert and multiply, find the common denominator) do a disservice to students if they do not understand when to use them. Mastery cannot be measured with a yearly exam.

We must convince our elected officials to change Education Law 3012-d by playing the long game, not just the short. The future of education in New York requires no less.