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The Kids Aren't All Right in Florida Schools

When I was a child, I remember a sign posted on the wall behind the cash register of a small retail store saying: "Value is remembered long after price is forgotten." I thought of those words after reading about a new law in Florida that will determine how teachers are rewarded and fired ("Florida House Approves Ending Tenure for New Teachers," New York Times, Mar. 16).

Starting in July, new teachers in Florida will be given one-year contracts, effectively ending tenure. Beginning in 2014, contracts will be renewed according to a formula that counts test scores for half of evaluations. Teachers who perform poorly for two out of three years could be terminated.

The sponsor of the law proclaimed that it has "ushered in a new era in education reform and will be a national model." He went on to assert that the law will "correct a system that is flying blind, a system that has no from of knowledge to go on in terms of which teachers are highly effective and which ones aren't."

Critics attacked the law for its overwhelming reliance on tests scores and for making teachers reapply for their jobs every year. They claim that the law will make teaching even less attractive than ever.

But what both sides in the controversy are missing is the effect of the law on students in two respects. This is where the meaning of the sign comes in.

When classrooms are turned into test preparation factories, test scores will undoubtedly rise, but educational quality will unavoidably plummet. It's already happening in many schools, as pressure builds to provide evidence of learning.

In these cases, the public will be led to believe that they are finally getting value for the price they pay in the form of taxes. But they are deceiving themselves. That's because there is far more to enrichment than can ever be measured by a single test. Unfortunately, students will be the ones who are shortchanged in the long run. They will not remember their test scores, but they will remember what their teachers were forced to omit or downplay.

Florida is not alone in going down this path. New York, Wisconsin, Pennsylvania and Massachusetts are considering overhauling the way teachers are evaluated. Because states tend to engage in what the auto industry used to call pattern bargaining - copying the terms of a contract that one company reaches with its employees - it won't be at all surprising if other states soon follow Florida's lead in dealing with their teachers.

But students will also be shortchanged by the effect of Campbell's Law. The more any quantitative indicator is used for decision making, the more it will be subject to corruption and the more it will corrupt the very process it is intended to monitor. As long as test scores are heavily weighed in evaluating teachers, there will be relentless pressure on teachers to engage in unethical practices.

This too is already happening. An investigation by USA Today of standardized test scores of millions of students in six states and the District of Columbia identified 1,160 cases of anomalies that analysts called "statistically rare, perhaps suspect, gains on state tests." The data collected were over a period of three to seven years.

It's interesting to note that Florida was one of the states. (The others were Arizona, California, Colorado, Michigan and Ohio.) As a result, despite the fanfare over its new law, Florida is unwittingly setting itself up for Campbell's Law to make itself felt with a vengeance.

Education officials in Georgia also reported that they had found evidence that cheating on state tests may have occurred at 191 schools across the state. This amounted to one in five of Georgia's 1,857 public and elementary schools.

And in February, the New York Post reported that the purported success of New York City schools when Joel Klein was chancellor was "a lie." According to the Post, the math tests used between 2006 and 2010 contained questions that were similar from year to year. Not only that but the cut scores were gradually lowered. These practices in all likelihood accounted for the jump from 58 to 82 percent of the number of students in grades three through eight who passed, and for the leap in the graduation rate from 49 to 63 percent.

It's high time for all states to disabuse themselves of the notion that everything that counts can be counted. Some important outcomes flatly defy measurement. But that's a lesson reformers still haven't learned.

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The opinions expressed in Walt Gardner's Reality Check are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.

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