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Judging Teachers by Students’ Test Scores: The Debate Rages On

By Michele McDonough

What role should standardized test scores play in the part of teaching evaluations? Voices on both sides are quite vehement in their arguments - is a compromise even possible?

Standardized Tests: A Brief Summary of the Arguments

Students Testing For years, educators and parents have debated whether or not standardized tests accurately measure their students’ progress in public schools. On one side, proponents argue that country-wide standards are necessary to identify problems in the system, poor teachers and badly managed school districts. In addition, they point out that these tests can be objectively used by parents and teachers to track an individual student’s academic growth over several years and to use those results in multiple ways.

Those who are against standardized testing fall into several different categories. Some believe that testing, in general, isn’t the right way to measure student achievement. Others aren’t necessarily against the concept of testing, but they don’t think it’s fair to judge an entire year’s worth of work on a single test. After all, haven’t we all had a bad day and bombed a test – not because we didn’t understand the material being covered, but because we didn’t get enough sleep the night before or we were dealing with stressful personal issues?

These arguments – and many more – go quite deep, and there is a lot of evidence to support both sides. If you want to take a closer look at some of this evidence, is one excellent resource worth checking out. Rather than delve into the merits of either side’s arguments, I’d like to focus on another question:

If we’re still so divided on the issue of whether or not standardized tests are good tools for evaluating students, should we really be pushing ahead to use them as tools for evaluating teachers as well?

Evaluating Teachers Using Standardized Test Scores

In recent times, the standardized test debate has risen to a whole new level. Instead of just using these test results to evaluate students, many are pushing to use them for teacher evaluations as well. As a result, an even larger controversy has erupted and it’s getting a lot of media attention – partly because of the Chicago teachers strike in 2012. Should a teacher’s salary be adjusted based on how well his or her students perform on standardized tests? If their students perform below national averages, should teachers be fired?

Many opponents of this initiative believe that this is a form of class warfare that will have spiraling consequences. They point out that students in low-income districts are already at a disadvantage because their families and schools lack the money to invest in the latest technologies, textbooks and other educational resources. It’s tough to get good teachers to work in those conditions now – will it be even tougher if those teachers are afraid they’d be penalized further because of low test scores?

Supporters of the standardized test movement claim they recognize these issues as potential problems, but argue that they can be accounted for in other ways. For instance, when using test scores in teacher evaluations, the focus could be on how much the teacher’s students have progressed since their last testing period instead of on how well they compare to students nationwide. But, even with this definition or others like it, would we still be able to make an “apples to apples” comparison? Or, are there other factors involved that are just too subjective to reasonably account for?

What Does the General Public Think?

What Does the General Public Think? 

Yes, there are a lot of tough questions being asked in this debate, but there’s also another major problem. The Chicago teachers strike pushed this issue to the forefront of discussion, but many media outlets failed to paint a complete picture of where the battle lines were being drawn. And since 2012, numbers have changed.

As part of the 2012 PDK (Phi Delta Kappa International)/Gallup Poll of the Public’s Attitude Toward the Public Schools, the following question was asked.

Some states require that teacher evaluations include how well a teacher’s students perform on standardized tests. Do you favor or oppose this requirement?

The responses to this question were almost as evenly distributed as possible: 52% were in favor, 47% were opposed and 1% didn’t know or refused to answer. To me, that definitely suggests that more discussion and analysis is needed before a decision should be made.

However, in the 2013 PDK/Gallup Poll, 58 percent of Americans rejected using standardized test scores to evaluate teachers.

What about you? Do you think this is a question that deserves more study, or have you already taken a firm stance on the issue? If the latter is the case, which arguments do you find to be the most compelling?