Value-added teaching ranking system not so valuable

September 24, 2010 — by Cecilia Hollenhorst and Denise Lin

Donna Goodlett, a former 4th grade teacher at Vintage Math/Science/Technology Magnet School, was one of the 6,000 teachers to be ranked on the Los Angeles Times website this past August. The rankings were based on a “value-added system” that judges teachers on the amount their students improve their standardized test scores.

Goodlett’s school specializes in math and science, yet her “effectiveness” score was said to be only “average.” Although one might assume from the label she was given that she is a mediocre teacher, the truth is, there is no way to really know.

Because Goodlett’s school is a magnet school attracting students that excel in math, these students could have come into her class already receiving exceptionally high scores, making it difficult for them to improve dramatically.

Clearly, a few numbers based on just one thing—standardized test scores—cannot accurately depict the entire classroom dynamic. Teaching students to think for themselves and preparing them for upcoming challenges in life is more important in the long run than simply training them to meet improvement quotas.

Even worse, in some districts across the country, teachers’ pay is now becoming solely or mostly linked to students’ scores on standardized tests, giving a few teachers an incentive to act dishonestly for higher rankings.

Teachers tampering with test scores is not limited to American teachers. It is now a global problem, as seen in problems with the National Assessment Program—Literacy and Numeracy (NAPLAN) in Australia. The NAPLAN test, a national literacy and numeracy test, has been used in Australia since 2008, but there has been dishonesty within this system as well. Some schools have looked at the test questions illegally, while others controlled which students took the tests.

Despite these emerging issues, the merit system has potential to accomplish its original missions and reward teachers who are truly gifted and dedicated to their trade. In 2007, Barack Obama recognized this potential at a meeting of the National Education Association, stating that the merit system could be successful as long as it is not forced upon teachers, and merit is not measured by an arbitrary test score. Obama urges districts to alter this merit system by using other factors as well as standardized test score improvement to determine teachers’ competence.

In some school districts, alternative methods have proved more effective in encouraging teacher improvement than using standardized tests. In Portland, Maine, for example, teachers who participate in professional development classes, help with student activities and receive a positive evaluation from an administrator qualify for a salary increase.

A value-added merit system is a step in the right direction but is erroneous in its structure and the way it has been implemented. The experiences of real, human students and individual circumstances within a classroom should play a larger role in distinguishing excellent teachers from the not-so-excellent ones.

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