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.


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.


Human Cognition and Implications for the Constructivist Classroom

In light of Brain Awareness Week (March 13-19), I thought I would write about the brain!

With the development and increased usage of the FMRI (functional magnetic resonance imaging), I find myself reading more and more findings regarding human cognition and neuroscience. It has also become a major interest of mine. That being said, while analyzing study findings, I find myself in a state of excitement, discovery, and uncertainty. The more I learn about human cognition, the more I question current best practices, educational trends, teaching strategies and approaches, etc.

In the context of direct instructional guidance as it relates to human cognition, learning is defined as a change in long-term memory. Kirschner, Sweller, & Clark (2006) posit:

The aim of all instruction is to alter long-term memory. If nothing has changed in long-term memory, nothing has been learned. Any instructional recommendation that does not or cannot specify what has been changed in long-term memory, or that does not increase the efficiency with which relevant information is stored in or retrieved from long-term memory, is likely to be ineffective. (p. 77)

Based on my readings and knowledge regarding human cognition (which is admittedly limited), I find that these cognitive researchers often sound very definitive when talking about learning. However, for me, questions continually abound regarding their claims or evidence. For instance, can Kirschner et al. safely conclude that absolutely no learning has occurred if nothing has changed in long-term memory? Again, for me, that sounds very definitive.

Kirschner et al. further posit that controlled experiments almost always demonstrate that when students are dealing with novel information, they should be explicitly shown what to do and how to do it (sounds somewhat like lots of hand-holding). If they are not, students may experience an excessive cognitive load that is detrimental to learning.

As an avid and vocal proponent of project-based learning, I always get a little nervous while reading and analyzing cognitive studies that decry constructivism or constructivist teaching approaches. I’m not denying the results of these cognition studies or the plethora of literature reviews concerning human cognition that suggest that direct instructional approaches are more effective and more efficient.

However, with well-designed and well-planned project-based learning, students are provided with a real-world problem and (often) a pathway or guidelines to follow in order to solve the problem (therefore, possibly alleviating the “problem-solving search” that has been shown to deplete working memory). Well-designed PBL is highly structured and organized by skilled teachers. Students are guided through the journey as they endeavor to meet project deadlines, secure resources for their projects, practice and prepare for presentations in front of authentic audiences, and receive and reflect on critical feedback. When done well, and when students are truly engaged in these endeavors, though it may not be considered a “direct instructional approach” or “direct instructional guidance,” PBL can have profound learning impacts on students, right? I’ve seen it happen. Or, is what I’ve seen simply increased levels of engagement and excitement regarding learning activities? Is what I’ve seen simply students engaging in meaningless activities that look good, but will not transfer to long-term memory alterations? Cognitive studies often rock educational foundations. As such, these are turbulent times for me as I grapple with this information.

Human Cognition and the Case for Early Childhood Education.

Also, as we become more informed about human cognition, I can’t help but think about its implications for early childhood education. Based on what I’ve read and what researchers have found, a substantial amount of information stored in long-term memory is essential for continued and future successful learning. If this is the case, I don’t see why early-childhood education is not mandated (I’m sure most people will resort to the argument that there’s not enough funding for it). I live/work in Illinois. Students don’t have to go to school until they’re 6-7 years old (first grade). In underserved communities, it’s highly likely that if students are not attending school during those foundational years, they are not building experiences necessary to form and fill long-term memory. By the time some students come to us at 5 or 6 or 7 year olds, they may have missed a copious amount of opportunities to build their long-term memory.


What are your thoughts? I’d love to hear from you! Feel free to follow/share/leave a comment!

Transparency -> TRUST -> Social Capital -> the Community Allowing a Certain Degree of Risk-Taking

I consider myself somewhat of an innovative risk-taker when it comes to education. I love working with/along side fellow educators who challenge the status quo and break free of the traditional mold. As I expand my horizons and continue working with educators from other districts and other states, I occasionally see overwhelming levels of trepidation from educators and school officials when it comes to making changes or “rocking the boat.” In addition, some of the pushback comes from the communities in which these districts are located (which could be the reason for the trepidation on the part of the educators and school officials). In certain districts, I’ve attended informational sessions for parents regarding potential changes being made, where these sessions have turned into full-blown debates. At times, these debates have gotten so heated the educational administration has had to end the meeting in order to “cool down” and reconvene at a later time.

Many people think that because they’ve gone to school or that their kids are in/have gone to school, they’re experts in the field (example: politicians who have no teaching or administrating experience in education crafting and implementing policies). I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard the assertion (or similar sounding assertions) “Back in my day…”, “I went to school during the golden age of American education…”, or “This is the way we used to do it.” Unfortunately, there never really was a golden age of American Education. As Ravitch points out, there never was a time in American education when everyone succeeded in school. American students were never very good at taking standardized tests (like the Long-Term Trend NAEP) compared to other nations. I wish more communities and policy makers would understand this or at least be aware of it.

I see the formula in the title as a way of possibly encouraging the community and education officials to allow teachers and administrators a certain degree of risk-taking. As school representatives, we must be transparent concerning our intentions, and our intentions must be aligned with what’s best for students. Transparency helps build trust with the community (schools decide how they want to go about being transparent. Will it be through an active social media presence or through more traditional channels like a newsletter?) When the community is constantly informed/aware of the amazing things going on in school, this helps build trust. A simply Google search of “social capital” reveals, “social capital is the network of social connections that exist between people, and their shared values and norms of behavior, which enable and encourage mutually advantageous social cooperation.” Again, being transparent will help build trust which then helps lead to mutually beneficial social relationships and cooperation between the school and the community. Ideally, this synergy will help parents, community members, and other stakeholders understand that innovation and change aren’t bad. Both are hard and may not always work. However, as times changes, our schools must keep up.

In the end, the formula helps demonstrate the notion that we’re here doing this job to help kids. Trust us. We want what’s best for students. We may not always get it right (especially the first time). But, that doesn’t stop us from wanting what’s best for kids. Innovation failure will not deter me from wanting what’s best for kids.

It’s No Longer A Matter Of “If”, But “When”…

I think about challenging the status quo and innovative strides in education in the context of our current reality regarding technology and automation. I don’t mean to sound like a conspiracy theorist or a doom and gloom preacher. However, being as prescient as possible, many have predicted what awaits students when they leave school in the next decade and beyond, and I can’t stop thinking about it. Some of it is scary. The notion that robots will be taking over may be somewhat farfetched. Yet, the reality is, many of the occupations we know of today will change and some will be completely automated. That being said, major shifts in the education system may be needed to prepare students to work seriously with technology. We continually hear of the push concerning the preparation of students to succeed in the 21st century, but for many, school looks a lot like it did 10, 20, 30, 40, and even 50 years ago. We can’t sit around and deny that it will happen. It’s already happening. It may take longer than some futurists predict. But, it will happen. Innovative strides in education must occur. We must remain current. I’m not advocating for teachers, administrators, or schools to abandon things we know work. However, we may need to broaden our scope when considering the notion of preparing students to survive and thrive in a world that is rapidly changing and shows no signs of slowing down.

Thoughts?  Feel free to comment/share/and follow!



What is the purpose of education? What approaches to teaching result in the most learning? What types of teacher evaluation systems truly benefit the teacher, and subsequently, the school community? What are the tried and true safety protocols that maximize the safety of the school community? What type of educational programming will ensure the inculcation of 21st century learning skills? Is there a classroom management system that best suits an entire school building or community? With a packed curricular schedule, what’s the best way to ensure social emotional learning is occurring in the classroom/school? These highly debatable questions can’t be tackled with one, clear, definitive answer. To me, that’s one of the reasons why it’s so important to talk about them.

I’m J.R. Entsminger. I serve as an educational administrator in Chicago Heights, Illinois. Before serving as an administrator, I was a junior high reading/Language Arts teacher.


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I love talking and learning about education. Read my posts, comment if you have suggestions/answers/ideas, and let’s dialogue about how to best serve our most precious assets: children.