Thomas: Don’t link teacher pay to student test scores

Thomas: Don’t link teacher pay to student test scores 

Linking teacher evaluations to student standardized test scores is a bad idea that will not die.

The S.C. League of Women Voters issued a report in 2013 endorsing a plan to include what are called value-added methods in teacher evaluations, despite the overwhelming evidence that they are unreliable in high-stakes policies.

H.4419, sponsored by Rep. Andy Patrick, requires that half of teacher evaluations must be based on “evidence of growth in student achievement using a student growth model as determined by the department for grade levels and subjects for which student standardized assessment data is available.”

These teacher evaluation methods join grade retention, charter schools and Common Core as bad policies that are refuted by the research base — resulting in a tremendous waste of time and funding that could be better spent for our students and our state.

For example, Edward H. Haertel’s Reliability and validity of inferences about teachers based on student test scores (ETS, 2013) offers yet another analysis that details how value-added methods fail as a credible policy initiative.

Haertel refutes the popular and misguided perception that teacher quality is a primary influence on student test scores. As many researchers have detailed, teachers account for about 10 percent to 15 percent of student test scores. While teacher quality matters, access to experienced and certified teachers as well as addressing out-of-school factors dwarf narrow measurements of teacher quality.

He also concludes that standardized tests create a “bias against those teachers working with the lowest performing or the highest performing classes,” which makes it hard to justify using student test scores as anything more than a modest factor in teacher-evaluation systems.

Instead, Haertel calls for teacher evaluations grounded in three evidence-based “common features”:

“First, they attend to what teachers actually do — someone with training looks directly at classroom practice or at records of classroom practice such as teaching portfolios. Second, they are grounded in the substantial research literature, refined over decades of research, that specifies effective teaching practices…. Third, because sound teacher evaluation systems examine what teachers actually do in the light of best practices, they provide constructive feedback to enable improvement.”

Haertel concedes that value-added methods may have a “modest” place in teacher evaluation. That’s no ringing endorsement, and it certainly refutes the primary — and expensive — role that they play in proposals to reform teacher evaluation in South Carolina and across the country.

Would South Carolina benefit from focusing on teacher quality — as well as ensuring that all children have equitable access to experienced and certified teachers? Absolutely. Teacher effectiveness is strongly connected to the conditions of teaching, however, and value-added-method evaluations promise to erode, not enhance, those conditions.

Linking teacher evaluation in any way to test scores will force teachers to teach to the tests (and thus ask less of all students), expand an already expensive testing regime and discourage teachers from working in the most challenging schools and communities.

The calls to implement policy that is contradicted by a growing body of research are not only misguided but also likely to cause far more harm than good — and drain valuable time and resources from our schools.

Our students, teachers and schools cannot afford doubling down on a failed test-based education culture.

Dr. Thomas is an associate professor at Furman University and a former high school English teacher; contact him at or follow him on Twitter @plthomasEdD.


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