Using Students’ Standardized Test Scores To Evaluate Teachers Is Wrong

“I am a special education teacher. My students have learning disabilities ranging from autism and attention-deficit disorder to cerebral palsy and emotional disturbances.” So begins William Johnson’s op-ed piece in today’s New York Times.

Feeling overwhelmed already? Can you imagine coping with a class like that, compounded by the fact that these are teenagers, so raging hormones and social pressure also play a part?

And yet, as Diane Ravitch points out in “Schools We Can Envy,” published in the New York Review of Books, in recent years, elected officials and policymakers have all agreed that there should be “no excuses” for schools with low test scores. The “no excuses” reformers maintain that all children can attain academic proficiency without regard to poverty, disability, or other conditions, and that someone must be held accountable if they do not. That someone is invariably their teachers.

Bad Standardized Test Scores = A Bad Teacher?

How about holding accountable the district leadership or the elected officials who determine funding, class size, and how resources are allocated? No, as Ravitch explains, the reformers say that our economy is in jeopardy, not because of growing poverty or income inequality or the outsourcing of jobs, but because of bad teachers.

And so one of the main pushes of No Child Left Behind (NCLB) is to get bad teachers thrown out. How is it determined that a teacher is “bad”? The quality of a teacher is gauged by the results of a multiple-choice test given to students on one or two days of the year. That’s it.

Anything Not Tested Under NCLB Is Cut Back

More bad news: in response to the federal and state pressure to raise test scores, school districts nationwide have been cutting back on the arts, P.E, history, civics, even recess – anything that is not tested under NCLB. This despite the fact that no nation in the world has eliminated poverty by firing teachers or by handing its public schools over to private managers, which is exactly what is happening now across the US.

But back to William Johnson. Why is he a ‘bad’ teacher? That’s the evaluation his principal gave him at the end of the last school year, checking off a few boxes and thus placing Johnson’s career in jeopardy.

How did this happen? Johnson explains:

I was confused. Earlier last year, this same assistant principal observed me and instructed me to prioritize improving my “assertive voice” in the classroom. But about a month later, my principal observed me and told me to focus entirely on lesson planning, since she had no concerns about my classroom management. A few weeks earlier, she had written on my behalf for a citywide award for “classroom excellence.” Was I really a bad teacher?

The System Is Wrong

No, it is the system that is wrong. The truth is that we teachers care a great deal about our work, and we don’t need elected officials to motivate us. Nor do we need a blanket “What a great job you’re doing!” I’ve received that evaluation many times, and it reeks of laziness. Teachers appreciate real evaluations, reports that will help us grow in our profession.

By contrast, as Johnson describes so well, the more intense the pressure gets, the worse we teach.

When I had administrators breathing down my neck, the students became a secondary concern. I simply did whatever my assistant principal asked me to do, even when I thought his ideas were crazy. In all honesty, my teaching probably became close to incoherent.

Administrators should learn how to evaluate teachers fairly and expertly, which does not mean making teachers so scared that they can barely function.

Johnson finishes his article by saying that until we provide equal educational resources to all students and teachers, we can’t say how well or how poorly they are performing.

Which brings me back to Ravitch’s essay, in which she moves into the Finnish education system, one of the highest-performing school systems in the world, and shows how it is the complete opposite of what we have in the U.S.

In Finland:

* Teacher education programs are highly competitive and only one in every ten applicants is accepted;
* Students take no standardized tests until the end of high school;
* Students have fifteen-minute recesses between classes;
* Compulsory education begins at age seven.

In short, the aim of Finnish education is the development of each child as a thinking, active, creative person, and not the attainment of higher test scores. And one way the Finns achieve this goal is, as Johnson would like to see in the U.S., by providing equal educational resources to all teachers.

The thrills of teaching come in the moments of truly reaching students, seeing the light bulb go on, exciting and pushing them to make new discoveries. Having my students make higher scores on standardized tests has never been my goal.


Related Stories

How Finland’s Education System Succeeds, And America’s Is At War

Kids With Disabilities Need P.E. Too

The Finland Phenomenon of Education In Finland


Photo Credit: istock


Peggy Oconnor
Peggy Oconnor5 years ago

While I basically agree with the argument that standardized testing is unfair, I have to also agree that we need some kind of standard to rate the efficacy of the teachers. I raised three children and then I raised my grandson and believe me I have seen both sides. The effect that really good teachers had was phenomenal as was the damage done by poor teachers. From rocket scientists to trash haulers, there are rules to determine their job performance. My grandson had very high IQ, read 4 years above his grade level and yet was voted out of the gifted program because he was no "project oriented". Anyone who works with gifted children can tell you stories of a student failing in one subject while a genius in another. So how do we measure the effect of a teacher on his/her students? Perhaps the tests need to be improved but there has to be a scale to attain. How have we come to such a large number of high school dropouts if they, in fact, are getting the education they need to succeed? Some years ago, I was given an evaluation in which I scored "above excellent". However, my pay raise was limited due to it being scaled on lower performance. Teachers cannot maintain that they are "exclusive" to testing standards. If the standards are not working, then offer a solution. My grandchildren are now going through standardized testing where they are urged to rest, get plenty of sleep, and expectations are high for good performance, though this testing is measuring the teach

Lynn C.
Lynn C5 years ago

Wrong for both students and teachers.

Terri Lynn Sullivan

Andrew are missing the entire point, or are quite misled by media manipulation. The NCLB Act does not "lower expectations".....and is driven by the big 4 standardized test corporations of which has become a $600billion industry at expense of our nations kids, turning our public school system into a private corporation with our classrooms turned into veritbal test labs with our kids the guinea pigs for profit. No, the NCLB act has resulted in such, my 3rd grader is doing the level of material his Ph.D and MBA educated parents did in 5th grade, with 3 hours of homework per night. He is highly academic and top of class in high achieving school....but pushed to such limits with no time for play. He is 8 years old. And guess what? the teachers have nothing to do with "creating valid tests" when it comes to these standardized testing craziness everyone is talking about here.....those for-profit test corporations do....and they are crafted by people that have never worked in education. And fueled my grossly manipulated media since Reagon days of how our nation's kids are "failing so badly".....such false data to fuel profits into these corporations.....funny, sounds like Military industrial complex, also driven by greed and nothing to do with "protecting national security". Indeed, there is but one person within the entire Dept of Education that has a background in education field. our public school system has been Federalized and privitized...and that my dear is w

Terri Lynn Sullivan

To Andrew sound quite stupid

Terri Lynn Sullivan

EXCELLENT article!!!! Yes, I've been trying to get this message across to people as well. I wrote an article some time ago about the NCLB Act and how its failing. My son goes to one of the "highest API scoring" public school in our state, and is very academic....yet he is pushed to all levels with 3 hours of homework per night, no time to age 8 he has taken to wetting the bed nearly every night. Pediatrician can't fiend any health reason, but thinks its "nerves". He has no emotional issues, very attentive in school, one of top 3 students in classroom full of high achievers in a school with high parental involvement. In the "Race to nowhere" documentary, our culture of over achievement is displayed. And one of my girlfriends kids has special same school. I see him struggling as he is expected to maintain the same high standards the non-special needs kids have. This has got to STOP!!!!!!!!! Thank you for spreading awareness...please keep it up. Here is article I wrote.

Barbara Benway
Past Member 5 years ago

Testing is not the answer nor is it a fix for a system that is so badly broken, in my opinion. We are using an educational model set up in the nineteenth century. Is it any wonder it is failing us in the twenty-first century?

Students are passed along, as if on a conveyor belt. They are taught that looking at someone else's work is "cheating". In the work force it's called "collaberation", for example. The amount of curriculum is perscribed and dished out over a nine month period. Some children get it, some don't - everybody moves on, regardless.

We need a new concept, not another test. It's hard to think out of the box when you are educated IN the box.

Charli S.
Charlotte S5 years ago

I suppose PE teachers would be penalized if their disabled students failed PE. This whole No child left behind law is poorly crafted and not rooted in reality. Many children do not do well on tests yet know the material. We need to overhaul our schools and could take some lessons from Finland.

J C Bro
J C Brou5 years ago

wrong indeed!

bharathi A.
bharathi A5 years ago

In the world's finest education system in Norway, this would never be considered.

Jelca Bruigom
Jelca Bruigom5 years ago

Not every teacher is a good teacher, nor are they all bad but you can test it in the system its self Those who fail to reach kids will drop out and many more (good ones too) for the other reasons.
Besides how can they be responsible for individuals when they're constantly doing group jobs, small or big, still a group procedure. That while even parents don't seem to be capable to manage two or maybe five kids at home. Well.. guess someone has to be blamed for dying economics, you don't pay parents to do their job so why bother to confront or evaluate them.
So much easier to demotivate teachers, I've seen it all the time.