Evaluating teachers based on students’ test scores is harmful. Here’s why.

I taught sixth grade in a local public middle school for six years.  It was a struggling, blue-collar district.  My students’ parents did not have a college education, often worked minimum wage jobs, and at times had unstable home lives.  But it was a great job—the district was racially diverse, my colleagues were terrific, and the parents were generally very supportive.  The students, though sometimes very challenging, had an unguarded charm all their own.

Teaching is tough, and anyone who’s been a student knows there are many bad teachers out there.  In recent years more and more politicians are calling for teachers to be evaluated more stringently based on the standardized test scores of their students, and it’s easy to see the appeal of this.  After all, it’s “hard” data—we can analyze percentiles, look for movement in grade equivalencies, disaggregate by subgroup, and make “objective” assessments of which teachers are failing and which are succeeding.  But anyone who has actually been in the trenches teaching in a classroom can tell you why using standardized tests to evaluate teachers is problematic at best and truly dangerous when taken to the extreme.

Teaching vs. testing

The most obvious problem with relying on standardized tests to evaluate teachers is that it operates on the premise that everything that happens in my classroom can be quantified into a tidy formula that can calculate my success as a teacher (or, in the case of proposed merit pay systems, how much my paycheck should be).  Much of what teachers do all day is valuable work that won’t raise the students’ composite percentile one point.

My students generally did very well on standardized tests, but I can think of many instances when the work I did with a student didn’t have an immediate impact on test scores, but definitely made a difference a couple years down the line.

I had a student named Brandon [not his real name], for example, who came into my sixth grade classroom with an extremely negative attitude towards authority in general and teachers in particular.  I worked every day for nine months for him to feel like I was an ally and wanted him to do well.  He did manage to pick up a book now and then, but the main transformation for Brandon was that by the end of the school, year he felt like school was a place where he was welcome.  In seventh grade, Brandon’s academics really took off; he began actually turning in assignments and mastering the material.  The groundwork for this turnaround was laid in 6th grade, but it took a while (and the continued hard work of his 7th grade teachers obviously) for this to happen.

Inciting unhealthy competition among teachers

The more insidious problem with using test scores to evaluate teachers is that it pits teachers against one another and encourages unhealthy competition in precisely the environment where collaboration and cooperation should be flourishing.  At my school, charts were routinely distributed at faculty meetings showing each teachers’ students’ scores on the latest round of benchmark assessments or standardized tests.  This meant public humiliation for the teachers at the bottom of that list, the clear implication being not that your students were struggling but that you as a teacher weren’t cutting it.  None of us wanted to be at the bottom of that list, and it was easy to resent the teachers who were at the top of it.  This obviously bred a competitive environment where teachers were a little reluctant to share fresh ideas and pass along test preparation methods that seemed to actually work.  If you wanted your students to have the top scores so you could earn the professional  kudos that went with that, you went about your work quietly and weren’t quick to collaborate with your colleagues on new lessons.  I can only imagine how much more chillingly competitive things would be if teachers’ salary was based primarily on students’ test scores.

The risk for at-risk students

Finally, in a competitive system where teachers’ evaluations are based in large part on their students’ test scores, it’s the at-risk students who lose the most.  Put simply, it creates an environment where teachers will do anything in their power to get rid of students that will hurt their scores.  This kind of (to put it crudely) “pass the trash” mentality already exists, but if teachers are given a professional incentive to do it, it will become much more widespread.

In the six years that I taught, I had many students who were a drain on my energy and who I knew were not likely to perform well on the end of the year tests.  Often these were also students who disrupted the learning of others.  All teachers have these kinds of kids in their rooms, and the right response, I think, is to not give up on them, but to doggedly work to minimize their negative impact on the class and maximize their potential.  But if my contract renewal depended on my students’ test scores, I would be very tempted to do just about everything in my power to have that student transferred to another teacher, sent to the office a lot, or (what goes on a lot) spend their days sitting in the hallway.  In other words, I’d be tempted to cut my losses with that student and concentrate on the other students.  I doubt that’s the kind of social Darwinism we want going on in our public schools, but that’s exactly what is encouraged by high stakes standardized testing.

Quality, not quantity

Not all efforts to hold teachers accountable for the job they are doing are bad—teachers should be evaluated, and crummy teachers who show inclination toward improvement should be dismissed.  Standardized tests might even be a very small part of such an evaluation.  But the power these tests wield now in the lives of teachers and students is completely out of proportion to their value.  A teacher should be evaluated by administrators, fellow teachers, parents, and students, and there should be a real effort to do the hard business of qualitative rather than merely quantitative evaluation.  Teaching isn’t just a science, after all.  It’s an art, too.  Anyone who’s ever sat in a classroom with an amazing teacher knows that—and it might not show up in her MAP scores.