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Grading the Teachers: Evaluations and Test Score Tie-Ins

Imagine you were told that you had to take three hours out of your busy work schedule to take an exam. The exam would feature boring, only loosely connected passages about which you'd have to write an essay. And it couldn't be just any essay--instead, it had to follow a convoluted formula of writing that was somehow supposed to be "academic" but had no real bearing on anything you were doing in life. Then, the exam would be scored, but how well or how poorly you did would have no effect on you whatsoever. Instead, your boss would be evaluated based on your performance. Wouldn't you think, "Wow, this seems like a dumb system?" or "Why is this even my problem?" Wouldn't you possibly be tempted to rush through the test, or blow it off altogether?

You might, particularly if you were a New York City student, and this was the system under which your teachers were being evaluated. You'd feel resentful that your time was being taken up with three hours of testing that would in no way benefit you (i.e. would not connect to your course grade, take care of any graduation requirements, get you admitted to college, or enter you in any scholarship competitions), and was tied to a process you didn't care about one way or another. You'd also be ticked off that, on top of the NY State Regents Exams for each subject, the SATs, the ACTs, the AP exams, the Common Core tests, not to mention final exams for your courses, you were being forced to take yet another state-mandated exam. (Your parents might agree with you. They might pull you out of school on the day of the exam, because they thought it was such a big waste of time.)

When the Advanceā„¢ initiative for "teacher evaluation and development" was rolled out in New York City this past fall, teachers and students were both dismayed to find out that a test called "Measures of Student Learning," or MOSL, would count for 20% of their teacher "ratings"--determining whether teachers are ineffective, developing, effective, or highly effective. To tie teacher evaluations to students' test scores is always a risky proposition for so many reasons that I can't possibly go into them all in the limited space of this blog, though you can read some of my thoughts here. What I will say is that evaluations based on test scores attempt to force a direct connection between two things that are indirect: teacher performance and student scores on tests. The reality is so many factors impact student test scores--what they do at home, what they did in other teachers' classes, what they ate for breakfast that morning--that it's near impossible to view one proximal cause as the ultimate cause, as value-added proponents would like to do. (And this doesn't even begin to go into the plethora of different, better ways to evaluate teachers.) And especially when the test in question simply offers no incentives for students to complete the darn thing, it's hard to imagine a worse indicator of teacher efficacy.

As I write this column, governor Cuomo and the other state lawmakers have been meeting with U.S. Department of Education officials, who are threatening to withhold millions of dollars in state funding from "Race to the Top" if New York State does not comply with the mandate to tie teacher evaluations to student test scores. Cuomo has been pushing to postpone linking test scores to teacher evaluations, particularly because the role-out of Common Core State Standards has been so uneven, and students' scores on the new tests have been correspondingly poor. If the U.S. Department of Education withholds the funding, apologists for either side--those in favor of linking test scores to teacher evaluations, and those opposed--will each blame the other for failing to play ball, and not considering the needs of students in public schools already strapped for cash. But the reality is that until the Department of Education decides to invest meaningfully in programs at the ground-level, both to improve students' home lives enough to enhance their chances for academic achievement, and to improve teacher training and pedagogy from the outset, no evaluation system (no matter what magic number it's tied to) will solve existing problems in our classrooms.

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