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Teacher Compensation & Standardized Test Scores

Last week I began reading Steven L. Layne’s Igniting a Passion for Reading: Successful Strategies for Building Lifetime Readers (2009). By the time I finished page five, I had a highlighter and a pad of post-its in hand to record my thinking. Layne wrote:

It would seem that there is every reason to believe that school-age struggling readers are going to receive help – at least in the United States. Our federal, state, and local governments and agencies are enacting legislation left and right in an attempt to hold every person receiving a paycheck for working in public schools accountable for the students’ success in reading. The focus on skills testing is unparalleled. It is also, in my opinion, unconscionable because it quietly propagates the idea that if we can identify weaknesses in skills and correct them, America’s reading troubles will be abated.

Later on the same page, Layne wrote:

…Fostering a love of reading in kids is not a curricular objective. It’s not tested by the state, it’s not a component of any federal legislation, it’s not in the district strategic plan, nor is it likely the focal point of any methodology courses at the local college or university. Despite the National Reading Panel’s (2000) citing numerous studies that draw correlations between the amount of time children and young adults spend reading and their subsequent improvement in vocabulary development, fluency, and comprehension, we don’t seem overly concerned with making reading an attractive choice for kids.

These passages from Layne’s book have been on my mind all week, especially in light of conversations I’ve had with other teachers, family, and friends about standardized testing. Lately I’m specifically concerned with the ties between teacher-pay and student performance on standardized tests. As you probably know, one component the Race to Top Program will use to measure teacher effectiveness is based on how well students perform on standardized tests. If your students make a big jump, then you’ll be compensated. If your students don’t perform well on the tests, after their year with you, well… that’s a problem.

I think we need to have the brightest teachers instructing children. To that end, if teachers aren’t teaching well and doing what’s best for students, then I think administrators not only have the right, but the duty, to fix the problem. However, putting more pressure on teachers to have their students do well on tests isn’t a prudent solution to reforming education. But yet, since it’s easy to hold teachers accountable, based on students’ test performance, this seems to be the way of the future. This makes me uneasy.

None of us went into education for the paycheck. Quite frankly, I don’t think you went into education to have the summers off. I’m suspecting you’re the kind of teacher who is dedicated to doing what you know is pedagogically sound so you can help your students succeed in this world. You probably spend time reflecting on your teaching practice so you can be as effective as possible.

Even though you didn’t go into education for the paycheck, you most likely rely on it to pay your rent/mortgage, put food on the table, and for a myriad of other things. Therefore, even though your goal is to get students to think intensely, write broadly, and read deeply, it is clear they must also pass the standardized tests your state administers. However, you know as well as I do, that teaching to the test doesn’t guarantee student success in the long run.

Ellin Oliver Keene and Susan Zimmerman updated Mosaic of Thought in 2007. They included the 2002 research of Judith Langer, a professor at SUNY-Albany. One of the most poignant things Langer asserted, which the authors of Mosaic of Thought: The Power of Comprehension Strategy Instruction, 2nd Edition included was, “Increased performance is measured by students’ engagement and thoughtful reading, writing, and discussion and by their use of knowledge and skills in new situations.” Students are not going to become thoughtfully engaged in their work as a literate person if they are subjected to ‘skill and drill’ teaching for most of the school year. Yes, they’ll know how to write in response to a prompt. Yes, they’ll know how to find the main idea of a passage. Yes, they’ll know how to use the process of elimination when they get stuck on a multiple choice question. But, quite frankly, these are not the only skills we want the leaders of tomorrow to have, are they?

On page 29 of Mosaic, Keene and Zimmerman insist that “Kids who think well test well.” If we spend the bulk of our school year teaching children to comprehend a variety of texts, then they will be successful on a standardized reading assessment. Furthermore, if we spend the school year teaching kids to love to read, to want to read, and to feel the need to read, then they’ll become the kinds of people who will reach for books once they leave school, thereby making them lifelong readers. Lifelong readers are constantly reading because they want to not because they have to. Don’t we want our future leaders to be lifelong readers?

Student voice has always mattered to me. I read and responded to my students’ notebooks every week when I was a classroom teacher because I wanted them to know I cared deeply about what they wrote. I taught my students how to write persuasive letters so their voices would be heard beyond the classroom. I encouraged my students to publish their writing in books, on websites, and in magazines so they could see writing resonate with people beyond our classroom. The opportunity to have one’s voice heard grows out of Writing Workshop, not a packaged program that prepares students to take an assessment.

I am concerned about the future of Writing Workshop, throughout the entire school year, if teachers’ salaries are dependent upon their students’ ability to perform well on tests, in this case state-sponsored writing tests. I have close friends who have admitted to me that they teach Writing Workshop only in the springtime, after tests are over, since the kids need as much time as possible to prepare for the state tests. Even though they aren’t completely convinced that all of the test prep they’re doing is helping the kids write better written responses, they do it because their administrators tell them to prepare the students so their school can make AYP. If their administrators looked at the research, they’d know that too much test prep won’t make kids better… good teaching helps kids do better.

As Dick Allington, author of What Really Matters for Struggling Readers : Designing Research-Based Programs, 2nd Edition (2006) asserts:

Test preparation might produce a small benefit if it works to ensure students are familiar with the test format, but too much practice on formats produces careless errors. The best guideline for test preparation. The best guideline for test preparation would seem to be to practice a couple of days before the test to familiarize students with the test format and to introduce or review, general test-taking strategies. But daily periods of test preparation across the school year seems more likely to result in lower performances because most test preparation involves little, if any, teaching of useful reading strategies or development of world knowledge (Allington, 2006, 23-24).

Thoughtful conversations amongst teachers, administrators, and elected officials must take place if we’re going to help our students reach the top, rather than just make adequate yearly progress on their state tests. These conversations feel risky. Quite frankly, writing about this felt like treacherous terrain for me even though I’m an independent literacy consultant rather than the public school employee I used to be. One day I intend to return to the classroom, and most likely my compensation will be tied to my students’ test scores if things continue to go along the path they seem to be headed. While I’m not the kind of person to go rogue, I’m also not the kind of person who would want to be told how to teach my students (since I tend to know my students better than someone who isn’t interacting with my students in the classroom).

When all is said and done, it comes down to common sense. Now, more than ever, we need to make sure we’re using common sense even when we feel pressured to make sure our students perform well on standardized tests. We must do more than preparing students to do well on a test… we are responsible to prepare them for 21st Century careers and the challenges that come with those jobs.

So, I ask you this:

How are you going to continue teaching writing in the way you know that’s best for kids?

Please share your response in this forum by leaving a comment on this post.

Stacey Shubitz View All

I am a literacy consultant who has spent the past dozen years working with teachers to improve the teaching of writing in their classrooms. While I work with teachers and students in grades K-6, I'm a former fourth and fifth-grade teacher so I have a passion for working with upper elementary students.

I'm the author of Craft Moves (Stenhouse Publishers, 2016) and the co-author of Jump Into Writing (Zaner-Bloser, 2021), Welcome to Writing Workshop (Stenhouse Publishers, 2019), and Day By Day (Stenhouse, 2010).

12 thoughts on “Teacher Compensation & Standardized Test Scores Leave a comment

  1. I plan to continue teaching students, not writing standards. Teaching grade-level standards assumes that all students are at the same developmental place. The standards-based movement has left a lot of children in the dust here in California. Teaching to the standards-based test is ineffective teaching.

    I wrote an article titled “Should We Teach Standards or Children” at http://penningtonpublishing.com/blog/reading/should-we-teach-standards-or-children/ that some of you may wish to read.

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  2. Lynnelle….get a job in a private school! Don’t give up teaching.

    I love Richard Allington’s comment, that the test prep should take place a few days before the test to familiarize the students with the format. I do this. In fact, in May, test writing is our genre of study. This has worked well for me and my students in the past. It is disheartening to think that people will stop feeling passionate about what they teach, and start pushing the workbooks again.

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  3. Sad to say, I’ve been concerned about this Race to the Top since I watched Arne Duncan dance his way through an interview on Charlie Rose, early in his new job. He could not talk about evaluation beyond the big test, even though he maintained that there would be no more NCLB. Hmmm… it might be even worse.
    I think that the bottom line is first respect for teachers and then getting beyond the test…How do we do that?
    How many stories are there like Lynnelle’s? And what do we need to do to get the power hearing this?
    Bonnie
    Great article Stacey. I just copied and saved it.

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  4. The Race To The Top program worries me greatly! Once again I feel like “reform” is not going to occur in our public schools. Our budgets are stretched so thin that districts are racing to get money, not racing to do what’s best for their students. I wish there was a win/win solution out there but disctricts are desperate! I am also reading Layne’s book and it is a tremendous inspiration to me. As educators we’ve got to continue to do research in regards to what is going to be best for our students. We’ve got to make sure that we have research to back our beliefs so that when the chips fall we can prove to the powers that be that we are doing what’s best for kids. Defining our beliefs and integrating that into our daily instruction! Thank you Stacey for stepping out and writing this post, clearly we are at a crossroads in education, my only hope is that we unite as educators.

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  5. Lynnelle,

    I am so sorry to hear that happened to you. I think that you are right though about the many administrators who want teachers to say they do workshop but still secretly do test prep. (the practice books) I think it’s that they want to go back to something they think “works.” But has it ever really worked? I also feel like a lot of schools are implementing workshop all wrong. Chicago adopted the Lucy Calkins Units of Study after the success it had in New York. But when I talk to teachers they aren’t really implementing it correctly, they are reverting back to what they’ve always done within this new framework. The true workshop model takes WORK. I work a lot, and I mean A LOT, as I’m sure many of you do, and I still don’t have it all figured out. I hope I never do. Because the minute I think I’ve got it mastered and I stop becoming a learner I know I’ll be done with teaching.

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  6. Stacey,

    Wow! What a poignant post. This is something that strikes my teaching heart to the core. After nine years in the classroom, I am now pursuing my NBC in literacy. I was so excited. I organized this summer and knew in my heart that I was doing what was best for kids. Our state changed the standards by which they scored the testing in July AFTER the students took the test in April. When we received the scores at our site, I was called out of my classroom a TA went in STOPPING instruction and my administrator asked how I could have failed the 18 students out of 56? What did I do? How come I didn’t measure up? I have never been so humiliated in my life. I went to the teacher’s lounge to regain composure before I went to teach and something happened to me. I felt that my very philosophy was being challenged. One I thought my principal shared. She has sent me to see Allington, Lucy, and Ellin. How could this be happening? I realized that it didn’t matter that I had done my best or the “story” behind my practices in my classroom. They wanted all students to pass. They wanted me to say yes I do Reader’s and Writer’s Workshop, but actually that means nothing now. You should see the PILE of test prep that has been sent off for me. I do believe that we have to teach “test wording” and “test strategies”, but I feel as if I am being asked to say I do the workshop atmosphere while actually doing test prep. So what does this all mean? I have decided after I pass and become a NCBT I am going to take the money and go back to school, but not in education. This actually breaks my heart. I have children sitting in by me each day thinking beyond my expectations, immersing themselves in vocabulary discovery and writing- believing they ARE WRITERS. But, I know that not all of them will pass. Is it bad that I know that, but don’t PUSH test prep? I know why they won’t pass…the test is 65 pages long…they feel the passages are pointless they have no meaning to them. I actually had one student who failed last year say, “Well, it’s not like I was going to have to talk about it, so I didn’t try.” I by no means teach in the inner city of Oklahoma. My school is not Title I, but right now I have students who don’t have enough food, clothing, whose foster parents are choosing to give them up, parents with cancer, parents divorcing. Those students don’t feel like taking a test for 5 days straight.

    That being said I see the writing on the wall. I WON”T change my philosophy. I can’t. I can’t do test prep. I can’t read from the basil and answer questions. I just can’t do it.

    Sorry to be Debbie Downer, but this is something I don’t even discuss at school.

    Lynnelle

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  7. Hi Stacey,
    Your words are powerful. I also hate how test scores breed competition instead of collaboration among colleagues. It is only by working together and sharing best practices that we are going to help shape our classrooms and schools into communities that foster a love for reading and writing within our students.At the same time, it is important to help our kids to internalize the skills and strategies that will help them to demonstrate independence as they think and talk deeply about texts and write with purpose, voice and passion.

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  8. Stacey,

    Thank you for that well thought out post. It is far more articulate that I can be at this point in the year. I am frequently baffled by the “educational” policies, programs, and mandates that are handed down by people in order to “save education.” Especially when most of those people have never set foot in a classroom.

    When testing time comes around, I have to teach my students to “dumb down” their writing, because they are such adept writers, due to writer’s workshop, that many of the skills they demonstrate do not fit into the stringent and narrow rubric that the state puts out. (As as result they will often lose points for doing things that good and real writers do.) Do you hear that Illinois? My students can write better than your highest expectation.

    I can’t help but feel that this policy of assessing teachers and schools by standardized tests promotes deep and systemic racism. The poorest and least-likely-to-do-well-on-the-test students are given the worst instruction. In Chicago those students are disproportionately minorities. Politicians can say “Well I helped raise scores in all of these under-performing schools.” Sure, but the kids can’t do much else. You haven’t taught those students to think or advocate for themselves. In fact you’ve taught them that education is a demeaning and fill-in-the bubble type experience, thus deterring them from continuing it beyond high school or elementary school.

    If teachers are graded on progress what motivation is there for good teachers to go to low performing school in urban settings? Even if you are amazing you cannot combat poor curriculum that you are mandated to teach by some “suit” on an ego trip who has never spent a day in his (or her) life in a room with 32 low income students.

    Teachers should be rewarded for continuing their education & going through National Board certification or other such programs. Quality teachers can get kids to improve their test scores within the framework of a strong literature based curriculum and quality learning experiences. Good test scores are a byproduct not an endgame. Without it, it’s too easy to believe the hype…no the propaganda that these politicians and testing companies are inundating us with.

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  9. I am sticking to the idea that good teaching will result in good test scores. It hasn’t failed me yet (though my experience is limited to two years). I am finding that if I teach my students the idea of “writing with a purpose in mind” and emphasize it, then they learn different ways of getting the same point across.

    Here in Florida, the test graders expect a 5-paragraph essay. I’ve seen brilliant writing marked down because the graders are looking for specific things and don’t have the time or inclination to look beyond their formula. That being the case, my students (hopefully) understand that FCAT Writes is an appropriate place to use that format…they have a purpose for writing that way, the same as they would have a different purpose in writing an article for the student newspaper. So far, it seems to be working (or I’ve just lucked out with great kids!).

    Just my meagre two cents, for what it’s worth. I love this post, as it reflects something that is really beginning to bother my concience where I’m at.

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