Reasons NOT to tie teacher pay to student test scores

Gordon MacInnes of The Century Foundation has published this brief on the topic of using student test scores to measure teacher effectiveness, a proposition that has been advanced by a number of school reformers. This very controversial topic recently returned to news headlines after the New Haven (CT) teachers’ union signed a contract that includes student performance in the evaluation process tied to teacher salary.*

Among the reasons MacInnes gives for NOT using student test scores to ‘grade’ teacher performance:

  • Students are not randomly assigned to teachers (nor to schools) – some teachers might only be assigned students perceived to be ‘good’ or ‘bad’
  • Standardized tests are evaluated for reliability and validity based on their intended purpose,  such as assessing 4th Grade math proficiency, not for evaluating teachers
  • Compensating teachers according to individual performance might lessen the impetus for teachers to collaborate and share best practices


*See this New Haven Register (CT) article for more information on the contract signed by New Haven teachers.


2 responses to “Reasons NOT to tie teacher pay to student test scores

  1. Pingback: New research on teacher ‘pay for performance’ schemes « The Education Blog

  2. Tim Parker

    Much has been written of late about failing schools. The assumption is that, if the students do not meet some arbitrary standard, the teachers are not doing a good job. The assumption is wrong. Students and teachers know that all students are not equal in scholastic ability and motivation. Test results illustrate this. There are tests of scholastic ability and tests of achievement. What the tests of ability measure is some combination of the child’s innate ability and what the child has learned. Pure innate ability cannot be measured, although some tests of aptitude seem to come quite close.

    Groups of students are not equal in ability or achievement. If we try to explain differences in ability or aptitude, we skate on very thin ice. It is clear that groups for poor areas do not test as well on achievement tests as groups from more affluent areas. The most likely cause is that the schools in the poor area are not as good. But it is not that simple. A lot depends on what is being tested, who is being tested, and the goals of the educational program. Suppose we use a same test in grade 12 at a suburban high school where almost all the students go on to college. Then suppose we use the same test at the same level at an inner-city school from which few students want to go on to college. Should we expect equal results? Of course not. Yet, it very important that the students at the inner-city school have the same opportunity to do college preparatory work as those in the suburban schools. James Conant’s idea of the comprehensive high school is still, I think, the ideal to strive for. We will never provide equal opportunity for quality education to all unless the funding system is changed. Affluent towns have adequate recourses for their schools, whole poorer towns and cities struggle to pay for the basics. A much greater portion of the cost per student should be paid by the state. Blaming the teachers for this situation is, in my opinion, wrong. And to characterize the school as “failing” is simplistic. Does a school fail merely because its students to not do well on a test of some arbitrary standard developed by the Department of Education?

    Tennessee and Delaware won grants under the Obama administration’s “Race to the Top”. In an interview on NPR, the governor of Tennessee gave reasons why Tennessee won. Schools there are evaluated on whether the students improve, not on whether they meet some arbitrary standard, as in Massachusetts. Another reason is that teachers favor the Tennessee system. No doubt, the reason the teachers are in favor is that the system makes sense. Perhaps the folks who make educational policy here in Massachusetts should go to Tennessee and find out how to properly evaluate schools and teachers.

    I don’t mean to suggest that all academic standards should be thrown out. There probably ought to be a minimum standard for a high school diploma. The MCAS is probably not the right test for that. We already have a good test for this purpose. It is a battery of five tests, the tests of general educational development (GED) Any person who has not graduated from high school and who passes the tests can get a high school equivalency diploma from the home state. Each state has its own passing score, but, in general, two thirds of the average high school graduating class would pass the tests. To expect every student to pass any test is naïve, unless the test is so easy that it is worthless.
    Then there ought to be a standard for those students who intend to go on to college. For this, I suggest that our makers of educational policy visit New York State, and that they thoroughly study the Regents examination program. The Regents exams are subject-specific, for example, third year French or second year algebra. The subject matter covered by the test corresponds well to what is generally taught. The questions on the test are kept strictly secret until the test is given, and the teacher of a given class is not even allowed to be present at the testing of that class.

    In summary, perhaps Massachusetts should junk the MCAS and start over. And next time, the Department of education should listen to the teachers. They know how to evaluate students, and they have been doing it for a long time. They know how to teach too, and they care about their students. They deserve our thanks; they do not deserve blame if the students do not do well on some arbitrary test that the teachers did not design.