Releasing Teachers’ Individual Performance Assessments Does Nothing to Strengthen Teaching

Last Friday New York City released the individual performance assessments for 18,000 elementary and middle school teachers in New York City.  While teachers have long known how they’ve been “ranked” based on their students’ test scores, the data was made public last week for the world to see.

I’ve spoken at-length with several former colleagues and friends whose rankings were made public.  No one felt the rankings were indicative of their ability to teach.  Some years one has students that are good test-takers, while other years one has a class full of students who struggle to make progress on tests regardless of the amount of test preparation given in the classroom.  While one former colleague has vowed not to allow the rankings to define her as a teacher (It shouldn’t!  She’s one of the most dynamic teachers I know.), others are more concerned.  Due to “average” or “below average” rankings, some friends fears include having parents asking the administration not to have their child in their class, wondering if they’ll lose their job despite positive evaluations they’ve received from superiors, and concerns as to whether or not the rankings will prevent them from moving to another public school in the City if and when they decide to change schools.

As we all know, standardized tests are not only way to measure achievement.  They’re definitely not the way to assess the kinds of 21st century skills students will certainly need to make them college- or career-ready.  Recently, Diane Ravitch wrote:

All such schemes rely on standardized tests as the ultimate measure of education. This is madness. The tests have some value in measuring basic skills and rote learning, but their overuse distorts education. No standardized test can accurately measure the quality of education. Students can be coached to guess the right answer, but learning this skill does not equate to acquiring facility in complex reasoning and analysis. It is possible to have higher test scores and worse education. The scores tell us nothing about how well students can think, how deeply they understand history or science or literature or philosophy, or how much they love to paint or dance or sing, or how well prepared they are to cast their votes carefully or to be wise jurors.  (Retrieved from The New York Review of Books on 2/26/12.)

Much has been written about the inaccuracy of the rankings.  (I’ve tweeted links to several articles on this controversy.  Go to @raisealithuman where you’ll see some of the articles I’ve linked to or retweeted from other educators’ Twitter feeds in the past few days.)  Yet, the New York State Court of Appeals allowed the rankings to go public.  Even though teachers were invited to respond to their data reports, I have a feeling that few parents will look beyond a teacher’s ranking to read his/her public response.  Even teachers from some of the most highly regarded public schools in Manhattan are suffering from “average” and “below average” rankings.

In one extreme case, the formula assigned an eighth-grade math teacher at the prestigious Anderson School on the Upper West Side the lowest possible rating, a zero, even though her students posted test scores 1.22 standard deviations above the mean — normally good enough to rank in the 89th percentile. Her problem? The formula expected her high-achieving students to be 1.84 standard deviations higher than the average — roughly the 97th percentile.  (Article by Sharon Otterman and Robert Gebeloff.  Retrieved from The New York Times on 2/26/12.)

Caring, dedicated educators want their students to make improvements during a school year on standardized tests, formative assessments, with their social skills, etc.  However, if teachers’ performance assessment results are going to continue to be broadcast online for everyone to view, then I fear the worst.  I fear teachers will turn away from strategies that work and curricula that makes sense (e.g., the workshop model) to spend more time “teaching to the test.”  And if that doesn’t seem to be working, then I wonder if teachers will go to more extreme measures to help their students do well while they’re taking the test or by changing students’ answers on standardized tests.  We’ve seen this happen in Atlanta, as well as in other places in the country.  Cheating and dishonesty will likely rear its ugly head if teachers fear their jobs are in jeopardy.

The Los Angeles Unified School District released their teachers’ “value-added rankings” in 2010.  There was public outrage from many people, in and out of education, about the rationale behind releasing these scores.  Did Los Angeles really think public humiliation of its teachers would help its students?  After that kind of public outcry, it baffles me how New York City, which is where I began my career as an educator, could release the scores for parents and the general public to see.  The release of this data does nothing to address the quality of teaching going on in classrooms.  It does not help the children who are in dire need to academic assistance.  Society should be more focused on improving teacher preparation programs, providing access to the best possible professional development so teachers can stay current with best practices, doling out adequate funds for professional resources, and helping teachers become more innovative.  Right now, it is apparent the focus is in the wrong place. The focus is on shaming teachers into doing a better job rather than helping them to be the best possible teachers for their students.

Whenever we stop focusing on what’s best for children (and releasing teachers’ individual performance assessments does nothing to help children), we lose sight of what’s really important in education.  It’s time for everyone to remember that it’s about the children.  It should always be about the children and how we can provide the best possible education for the children we’re privileged to serve.