Linking student standardized test scores to individual teachers would enable
principals, teachers and perhaps parents to know more precisely the
contributions that teachers make to individual students’ learning.
This question is often framed as one of fairness. For example, is it really
fair to teachers to measure their performance by their students’ scores on
standardized tests? Will students be unfairly shortchanged by having teachers
teaching to the test? If we knew that some teachers were more effective than
others, would it be fair to pay them all the same?
If we knew that poorer schools routinely had less effective teachers than
wealthier schools, would it be fair to poor students to let that inequity
persist? Is it fair to students and teachers for principals to make teacher
retention decisions on less precise information when more precise information is
In approaching these questions, I try to remember the lessons learned as a
private school principal — primarily that sometimes there are trade-offs
inherent in making tough decisions to put students first.
FAIRNESS IN MEASURING TEACHERS
Many will argue that teachers cannot be held responsible for
their students’ academic performance because there are too many factors beyond a
teacher’s control. They contend that the only way to give students a chance at
success is to address the social inequities associated with poverty that
interfere with their ability to learn. They also argue that schools are
underfunded and overcrowded, so it is not fair to hold teachers accountable.
The alternate viewpoint is that we have not yet maximized the
learning potential for all students, and improving the available educational
inputs would go a long way to helping students achieve.
Of the factors that schools can control, teachers make the most
difference for student success; therefore, it is best for schools to focus on
improving teacher quality. The most objective measure of teacher quality is to
evaluate the performance of a teacher in the classroom as measured by student
performance on standardized tests. To do so, it is essential to link individual
students to their teachers.
To be fair to teachers, school administrators must employ a
statistical technique, called value-added measurement. These techniques control
for, or tease out, the factors that contribute to a student’s learning that are
unrelated to a teacher’s skill or effort. It is true that there are some
trade-offs in choosing the particular statistical controls and that test scores
are not perfect, but by controlling for prior academic performance,
statisticians can get a relatively accurate measure of teacher quality by
looking at student achievement gains.
As a beginning teacher, I thought my job was to stand up in
front of students and present the material in the best way I could. Learning
was, however, ultimately up to them. Certainly, some students are more reluctant
learners than others, but I came to realize that a teacher’s job is not simply
about delivering material. High-quality teachers also communicate a love of
their subject and of learning, and they form relationships with their students
that help to motivate their students to learn and to perform.
TEACHING TO THE TEST
Some argue that teaching to the test is an inevitable negative outcome of
focusing so much attention on standardized tests. They assert that it is unfair
to students for teachers to spend an inordinate amount of time in standardized
test preparation. If teachers could substitute test preparation gimmicks for
real learning and still have their students succeed, the critics would be right
— students would be the losers. This reasoning breaks down when we examine what
a good test measures.
Consider a test of reading comprehension. Teachers may prepare their students
by working on sample problems. Teachers may spend time instructing students on
how to identify a passage’s main idea. They may also show them how to use
context clues to figure out unknown words. Further, teachers may show students
how to identify supporting evidence or conclusion sentences. These critical
reading skills are precisely what teachers should be teaching anyway; in this
light, teaching to the test may not be such a bad thing after all.
Another criticism of teaching to the test is that other untested subjects do
not receive as much attention. Rather than spending extra time at recess or in
music or art, students practice for reading, math, science or social studies
tests. Again, is this a bad thing? Students need a balanced curriculum, but the
best thing we can do is to ensure that they are developing the cognitive
abilities and skills that will prepare them for success in the workforce or
Teacher pay, teacher quality distribution, and teacher hiring and retention
decisions could all be made more fairly with the information that can be gained
through linking student standardized test scores to individual teachers.
Marc Holley is a doctoral academy fellow in public policy at
the University of Arkansas. His interest in education reform is informed by six
years of experience as a private school administrator and teacher.