Standardized Tests Distort Rankings

Last month, public education in this country continued to slip into the abyss. New York City became the epicenter of school reform and the second major U.S. city—Los Angeles Times published individual teacher scores last school year—to implement a public dissemination of individual teacher value-added scores. Value-added scores are a teacher’s rating predicated on the progress each of their elementary or middle school students makes on standardized tests in one school year.

In an OpEd for the NY Times, Bill Gates put it best, “I am a strong proponent of measuring teachers’ effectiveness … but publicly ranking teachers by name will not help them get better at their jobs or improve student learning … it is a big mistake.” The impetus to shame teachers through the individual report of their scores was created by winning acceptance of NY’s application by the US Department of Education for Race To The Top ARRA funds.

Solving the puzzle of improving schools and student achievement is elusive at best. However, we know what works and what doesn’t work to improve student achievement better today than any other time in the history of public schools.

Part of putting together this complex 1,000-piece puzzle will require investment and hard work on productive evaluation systems. These systems must provide useful feedback for teaching to improve student achievement more broadly than the limited standardized test.

When one looks at the skills needed to be successful in this information-based economy, filling in bubbles on standardized tests is never one we are asked to use in our adult daily lives. Using these tests as formative assessments to inform instruction is good practice, but we as a nation have taken fill-in-the-bubble testing way too far.

Instructional leadership from the principal and coaching from highly effective teacher leaders is another key factor. However, in today’s world of leadership the principal as instructional leader is difficult to attain. He or she is too tied up in oversight of facility maintenance, investigation of bullying behavior, recess and lunch supervision, creating schedules, district and state paperwork, parent meetings, more meetings, etc. Too little time and energy in most cases is paid to personnel systems for evaluation and improvement.

Like the military academy at West Point, NY, or the Naval Academy at Annapolis, MD, we need world-class training and instruction for school leaders. This must be a national effort at the highest of levels. Most university preparation of school leaders is mediocre at best.

Publishing individual teacher value-added scores is potentially humiliating and counter-productive to attracting bright college graduates to the teaching profession. Teaching as a profession continues to attract the bottom quartile of college graduates, a fact the late president of the American Federation of Teachers, Albert Shanker, consistently opined decades ago.

A huge number of puzzle pieces will gently fall into place when we figure ways to effectively attract candidates for teaching to the profession from the top three quartiles of college graduates—in large numbers. Concomitantly, since principals/instructional leaders usually flow from the teaching ranks, we’ll get a two-fer for the investment.

Gates in his OpEd wrote about some best practices relative to teacher feedback was going on in Tampa, FL, in Hillsborough County public schools. “We were blown away by how much energy people were putting into the new system—and by the results they were already seeing in the classroom,” Gates writes. “Teachers told us that hey appreciated getting feedback from a peer who understood the challenges of their job and from their principal…For their part, students we spoke to said they’d seen a difference, too, and liked the fact that peer observers asked for their input as part of the evaluation.”

In this tumultuous world of public education, one thing is for certain: The practice of doing your own thing as a teacher behind closed classroom doors has ended forever. A good thing, I am sure. Now, let’s make certain we prevent the publication of value-added scores for teachers in San Jose/Silicon Valley and rather work on a model for feedback and evaluation that appears to be working in Tampa, FL.

Joseph Di Salvo is a member of the Santa Clara County Office of Education’s Board of Trustees. He is a San Jose native. His columns reflect his personal opinion.

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