National Public Education
16Aug/121

Soccer Scores and Test Scores

The other day (8/5/12) the New York Times ran an editorial entitled "Carrots and Sticks for School Systems."  In it they urge the states to:

create rigorous teacher evaluation systems that not only judge teachers by how well their students perform but also -- when the results are in -- reward good teachers while easing chronic low performers out of the system.

They argue that the best teachers, those who scored in the top fifth of teachers, judged by the improvement of their students' test scores in a recent survey of 20,000 teachers, were no more likely to be given more pay, promotion, or even recognition than their low-scoring peers.  The "costs" of such practices, they say, are that many good teachers leave the profession each year.

I have been a fan of this newspaper most of my life, so it is particularly distressing to see them support such a flawed policy.  Tying student scores to teacher evaluation is wrong on so many levels that it is hard to know where to begin.

First, we might note that, at least according to the editorial, the authors of the original survey did not recommend such a link between test scores and teacher evaluations.  As quoted by the Times, they simple say that "School systems need to create explicit policies aimed at retaining high performers...[and] offer higher earning potential to excellent teachers."  Just how these good teachers will be identified is not specified. They might well use the standard methods common all over the world, such as classroom observations, student comments, word of mouth, etc., not the test scores of the students.

The Times tries to argue that judging teachers by their students' test scores most be right because the kids agree.  They rate these better scoring teachers as more caring, fun, demanding, etc.  But the problem is not that the test scores are inaccurate; there is no doubt that they do identify teachers who are good at what they do.  The problem is that linking these scores to teacher evaluations causes more problems than it solves.

As I have frequently noted elsewhere, the best evidence of these other problems is in the practices of the private schools.  Where is there a private school that links students scores to teacher evaluation or pay?  There are none.  How can this be, though, if this is such an accurate way to judge the teachers?  The answer is that the parents who are paying a small fortune to the schools would never put up with a scheme that is obviously so harmful to their children.  They are not going to pay the school so that the teachers can, in effect, use their child to get a certain pay level or promotion.  The whole concept undermines the trust and caring that has to be at the heart of everything to do with education.  Yes, test scores can find out which teachers have succeeded at certain aspects of their job, but they are absolutely toxic to the overall education process.

A good comparison can be made with the "scores" students get in athletic events, such as soccer.  We all know that kids and coaches take these scores very seriously, but most parents realize that the point of the whole process, the reason why we have soccer teams at schools in the first place, has to do not with the scores, but what else is happening on that field.  These goals include the learning of such concepts as teamwork, how to deal  with defeat, the fact that what you do in practice does matter in the game, and other such indications that steady work eventually pays off.

In order to get the kids to buy into these goals, then, we allow them to think that the score of the game is what it really is all about, since that makes it fun for them.  That's fine, and everyone benefits.

The scores on tests in the classroom, then, are like these soccer scores.  They are a necessary part of the process, but by no means the most important part.  What the kids are there for is not to get high scores.  We put them into schools to show them how the world works and what they can do about this, so that they can go out into that world and succeed.  The goal is not scores; these are just the means we use to implement the other, more serious, goals.

So where is the New York Times is all this?  They are down there with the kids, believing in the value of the number of points scored, blissfully ignorant of the deeper goals of the process.  They are the children; we are the adults who have to help them understand what is really going on.

Peter Dodington

August 16, 2012