Parents, teachers, and students: Raise your hands if you think what our schools need is more new tests and a greater emphasis on testing. If not, listen up, because this is exactly what our students and teachers face because of the reactions of Massachusetts, Maryland, Virgina, New York, North Carolina and other state policy makers to the federal Race to the Top (RTTT) program. These states have all marched to the RTTT beat, quickly passing laws that, among other things, insist that teacher evaluations must be linked to student outcomes.
Now we are seeing all the devilish details emerge, as state departments of education devise the regulations for how school districts must march to the RTTT beat.
In Maryland, for example, the Council for Educator Effectiveness voted to tie 50 percent of each assessment to student growth on standardized exams, despite vehement objections from teachers on the panel. Similar battles have erupted in New York and Charlotte, N.C., over proposed teacher evaluation systems that rely heavily on student test scores and use flawed methods to judge teacher quality.
Massachusetts’ proposed teacher evaluation system is scheduled for a vote on Tuesday by the state Board of Elementary and Secondary Education. But a group of educators and analysts assembled by the National Center for Fair & Open Testing (FairTest) examined the proposal and concluded it is deeply flawed and should not be approved.
The recently released FairTest report, “Flawed Massachusetts Teacher Evaluation Proposal Risks Further Damage to Teaching and Learning” criticizes the state’s proposal for five major flaws:
* It will require districts to use state test results (Massachusetts’ test is called the Massachussetts Comprehensive Assessment System, or MCAS) to judge educators.
* It will require districts to evaluate every teacher in every grade and subject with two “assessments” each academic year, forcing districts to make or purchase dozens of new tests at a time of drastic cutbacks and layoffs.
* It relies on a pseudo-scientific “growth” or “value-added” measures that are unable to distinguish good teachers from bad, according to researchers affiliated with the National Research Council of the National Academy of Sciences.
* It will increase pressure to teach to low-level tests, drive good teachers away from working where they are most needed, and damage the learning environment by forcing teachers to “compete” for high-scoring students.
A working group of educators and analysts from the elementary, high school and university levels collaborated on the report. We wanted to be sure that parents and others understand the potential negative impact of these proposals. If adopted, our over-tested students would have to take even more narrow and low-quality standardized exams, when there are already too many tests taking time from learning.
Mitchell Chester, the Massachusetts education commissioner, says the new system will be “objective” and “scientific” — partly because they always define tests as “objective,” but also because they want to claim that “value added” or “growth” models are “scientific.” However, research shows these models are no better than a coin toss at sorting good teachers from bad.
This system is opposed to the approaches taken by the nations whose school systems are praised for their equity and excellence. Among the most striking features of successful nations such as Finland and Singapore are their professional recruitment, development, support and support, as well as the pay and respect given to teachers. They don’t use tests to judge schools or teachers. Sadly, this sets them apart from our own country.
A focus on tests will undermine much of the most important work that teachers do. Good teachers do not simply convey information. They identify the diverse needs of their students, engage student interests and build students’ confidence. They also help develop team interaction and cooperation, while challenging and assisting students to overcome barriers. Unfortunately, the Department’s proposal is likely to rupture the essential relationships between teachers and students that make this work possible.
We need not reinvent the wheel. Comprehensive, high-quality teacher evaluation systems already exist and are used in many schools and districts. A recent story in The New York Times praises Montgomery County, Maryland’s system, which does not use student scores at all. The problem is not the lack of good models, but the lack of resources, time, training, and focus needed to implement them.
Teacher evaluation should be used to provide assistance where needed, and to recognize talented teachers who can lead and mentor their peers. Where necessary, a system should play a role in removing teachers who are clearly not effective. Proposals like the one in Massachusetts fail these tests.
Lisa Guisbond, a policy analyst for the nonprofit National Center for Fair & Open Testing, known as FairTest. The report, Flawed Massachusetts Teacher Evaluation Proposal Risks Further Damage to Teaching and Learning, is available here.