Tying Teacher Evaluation to Student Test Scores: The Ongoing Debate

Interestingly, fewer states are including student test scores in their teacher evaluation calculations. As of October 2019, 34 states will use student test scores while calculating teacher effectiveness, compared to 43 states in 2015 (read more here).

In addition to reading the aforementioned article, I recently engaged in a conversation with an advocate of using student test scores to calculate teacher effectiveness. I’m always amused when people say that educators need to be held accountable in similar ways to other professions (ie. The business world). These advocates want some means of measuring teacher effectiveness (as do we all), and equate students to “products” that are churned out at the end of the year. Obviously, we know that human beings are not “products” churned out on a factory belt. But, I’m always perplexed by these proponents. What I find most perplexing is that, the grand majority of the time, people touting/proposing/enacting these kinds of proposals:

    Are not teachers
    Have never been teachers
    Have no experience in PUBLIC education
    Have NO certification in education
    Run some kind of educational “philanthropy”
    See improving education as their “crusade”

I’m no statistician, but neither are many advocates for these types of reforms. I don’t understand how any teacher evaluation system could accurately account for all the variables that vastly impact student achievement (over which educators have MINIMAL TO ZERO control), including but not limited to (just to name a few of the big ones):

  • Poverty
  • Hunger
  • Homelessness
  • Family Mobility
  • Single-Parent Households
  • Parents’ Academic History/Ability
  • Diet
  • Physical Activity/Physical Health
  • Mental Health

I’ve heard that professors at prestigious universities have been trying to quantify and control for these almost uncontrollable variables since the release of “A Nation At Risk” in 1983 (with minimal to no success). I’ve read about researchers developing ridiculous formulas to try and control for outside-of-school factors and then incorporating these formulas into teacher evaluation along with student performance. In terms of actually improving student achievement by tying student achievement to teacher evaluation, the data are inconclusive. Of course, I contend that the reason for this is that these types of evaluation systems do nothing to address the underlying symptoms of student academic performance, or lack there of. “Efforts to improve educational outcomes in schools, attempting to drive change through test-based accountability, are unlikely to succeed unless accompanied by policies to address the out-of-school factors that negatively affect large numbers of our nations’ students” (Berliner, 2015).

Don’t misunderstand me….

• Students should ALWAYS be showing growth

• Teacher evaluation should encompass some type of measurable/quantified measure

I’m NOT saying that because of the issues mentioned above, we should not hold educators accountable. I’m NOT saying that we as educators can’t do things in order to ameliorate some of these underlying issues. THAT’S NOT WHAT I’M SAYING AT ALL. In fact, much research exists that posits, yes, these out-of-school factors exist, but here are things we can do in our classrooms to help. I am saying that teacher evaluation systems that include student performance as a measure of teacher effectiveness will always be seriously flawed.

I’m interested to see how this trend continues. Clearly, the government plays a major role in these types of educational reform initiatives. Thus, I would say that, unfortunately, future evaluation changes will be the result of a continuously changing and volatile political climate.

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This School Year, Prioritize Teacher Clarity to Maximize Student Learning

I heard an awesome quote today… “Clarity is the antidote to anxiety.” I can truly attest to the accuracy of this quote. We all want clarity in our lives. Guess what? Students really want clarity as well, especially in school and in class.

In regards to John Hattie’s influences and effect sizes, you can’t focus on any other influences or effects without first addressing teacher clarity. You can’t have effective teacher feedback with students without first addressing teacher clarity. You won’t have solid RtI practices for students without first addressing teacher clarity. Teaching practices such as direct instruction and reciprocal teaching will not be successful for students without first addressing teacher clarity.

Feedback has an effect size of .7. RtI has an effect size of 1.29. Reciprocal teaching has an effect size of .74. Direct instruction has an effect size of .60. Those are all solid effect sizes. However, remember… you must first prioritize teacher clarity (effect size of .8) in order to reap the benefits of any of those teacher practices. Clarity is paramount.

One way to focus on enhancing teacher clarity is through the clear and consistent utilization of Learning Intentions and Success Criteria. Learning Intentions are general statements about what we intend our students to learn. Success Criteria let us know if the desired learning (learning intentions) have been successfully or unsuccessfully achieved. Success Criteria help students understand what their work should include.

Sounds easy enough. And, many think, “I’m already doing this with my ‘learning objectives’/’learning targets’ and ‘I Can’ statements.” I don’t deny this. However, it’s the refinement that’s important. It’s the consistency that’s important. It’s more than simply posting these targets, objectives, or intentions.

In my own practice as an administrator, I’m also going to work to provide clarity from my standpoint as well. This will certainly help teachers, students, parents, and community members.

How do you work to improve and increase teacher clarity?

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Does Over-Assessing Students Perpetuate the “Is This for a Grade?” Mentality?

DISCLAIMER: I am in NO WAY saying assessment is bad. I don’t mean to place value judgment on any type of assessment with this blog post.

I don’t think it’s any secret. We assess students a lot in schools these days. In addition to the daily formative assessments that teachers utilize in their classrooms, students still take summative assessments/exams, interim assessments (MAP, Discovery Ed., etc.), and state-standardized tests (I may even be missing some).

Of course, I don’t think anyone would argue that certain types of assessments are very important. I posit that the majority of teacher-created assessments designed to assess a student’s level/progress with the intention of providing feedback immediately (or closely) following the assessment are far better than state standardized tests (of course) and a good portion of the interim assessments currently available. Obviously, this brings up the debate about the quality of teacher-designed assessments and how teachers actually use the data generated from the assessments they administer. I don’t really want to debate that. For the sake of this blog post, let’s just assume that teachers administer quality formative assessments and know how to truly utilize the assessment data to provide relevant and timely feedback.

While researching the validity and effectiveness of grades and homework, many researchers state that grades themselves turn students into “number/letter/grade monsters” or condition them to severely over-embrace the “is this for a grade?” mentality. Students often simply pursue a grade, rather than pursue learning for learning’s sake. In fact, researchers have found that grades diminish intrinsic motivation to learn anything. Obviously, this type of mentality, perpetuated by grading habits and traditions, is counterintuitive to actual learning. In addition to grades, I wonder if over-assessing students also contributes to that “is this for a grade?” mentality?

I’ve been cogitating about how all the assessments may add to the perpetuation of “is this for a grade?” mindset. I’d venture to say that the teacher-created assessments that informally gauge a student’s progress (or lack thereof) and that are often seamlessly embedded into classroom instruction do less to perpetuate the “is this for a grade?” mentality than interim assessments or yearly state-standardized tests. If the teacher-created formative assessments are seamlessly embedded into classroom instruction, I bet students don’t even think about a grade (some students may not even know they’re being assessed). However, I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard students ask “is this for a grade?” when taking interim assessments or state-standardized tests.

So, when formative assessment becomes such a part of the classroom environment that students don’t even know it’s occurring, grades become less of a focus. Suppose we were to do away with interim assessments and state-standardized tests. Suppose we only focus on teacher-created formative assessments and the resulting feedback. Suppose we got rid of grades and replaced them with a standards-based grading system (many districts are moving in that direction as we speak). It’s strange to think about an education system that would look like that. But, I’d venture to say that this type of system would probably eliminate the “is this for a grade?” mentality and possibly increase intrinsic motivation to learn for learning’s sake.

I’m sure there’s research on this. If you know of a study, please share it! I’d love to read it!

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State Standardized Testing: A Quasi-Debate Concerning Feedback

I recently engaged in a quasi-debate on Twitter with a few educators regarding the data generated from state standardized tests. An educator proclaimed that viewing state tests as a waste of time that reduce and limit classroom instruction is “ignorant of the bigger picture.” I immediately inquired, “Hmm… What exactly is the ‘bigger picture?’” A digital debate ensued.

First and foremost, solid research exists concerning the actual narrowing of school curricula as a result of state standardized testing and the pressure schools feel to do well on these tests. This pressure and the resulting narrowed/hallowed out curricula are especially prevalent in economically disadvantaged areas. Essentially, the exact opposite of this educator’s claim that standardized tests reduce and limit classroom instruction is true. This testing and the deleterious pressure put on schools as a result of this testing has been shown to reduce and limit classroom instruction.

Honestly, that’s not even where I found the deepest flaw in his proclamation (though that flaw is pretty significant and not to mention the research that suggests that state standardized tests don’t accurately show what students know and can do). After reading his edict, my mind immediately jumped to the idea of feedback. The feedback generated from state standardized tests is notoriously delayed, at least here in Illinois. Yet, I presume this issue would impact all states that are a part of the PARCC consortium.

If you’ve ever had the pleasure of administering a state standardized test, you know that schools don’t receive the feedback generated by these tests for months after the test is administered (maybe even years). Even after these testing consortiums claimed that going computer-based would help expedite feedback, schools don’t receive the feedback much faster (if any faster at all) than previous paper-based state standardized tests. I’m sure most Illinois educators recall the Illinois Science Assessment (ISA). We administered this exam to students in 5th and 8th grade in the Spring of 2016. Frighteningly, we still haven’t received the results from that assessment.

I know state standardized testing feedback may help some districts make program decisions. This type of feedback might help from a macro perspective (finding trends in learning across schools/subgroup populations). Susan Brookhart describes feedback as “just-in-time, just-for-me information delivered when and where it can do the most good.” I love this quote! When considering assessment feedback, the question must be: how can this feedback be used immediately in the classroom, where it can have the biggest impact on student learning?  That being said, I find it much better/more efficient/more logical to use formative assessment feedback for the purpose of impacting student learning in the classroom (I know I’m not alone in this thought.  But, the amount of people in this debate who vehemently approved of our state testing prioritization concern me).

With that in mind, another question arises: should schools/districts/states limit or forgo state standardized testing (like Finland) in order to focus their time and attention on the formative assessments that generate feedback that is most useful to teachers and students in our classrooms (not to mention the money/resources it would save districts)?  Throughout my career in education, I’ve never known a time without state standardized testing. Many educators from my generation share that sentiment. It’s hard to imagine an education system without these tests. However, at this point, I see state standardized tests, with their delayed feedback, as mostly accountability measures with limited relevance to improving classroom instruction in a timely manner.

Important to note, I’m not advocating for zero standardized testing. I think some value can be derived from certain standardized tests. But, I find the way we prioritize state standardized testing problematic.

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