Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Teaching To the Test

Every school teacher I know, and most people that are informed about public education, are infuriated by the amount that teachers are forced to “teach to the test”. The test is usually a state administered standardized test that students are required to pass in order to be promoted to the next grade level.

So “teaching to the test” has become a code-word for bad educational policy, but is it? Stephen Brill has an article in the New Yorker describing the difficulty in removing a horrible teacher from the classroom in the NYC public school system. Teachers are paid based solely on seniority, and most are tenured after three years, so there is little economic incentive for them to continue to teach well. The city is prohibited from using test scores in their consideration of offering tenure to teachers, which effectively prohibits any consideration of teacher quality in the decision to offer a teacher life long employment.

Most teachers do continue to teach well, and they always will because they became teachers in order to do so. But some won’t. And, as Brill notes, teacher quality is more important than any other factor in determining a student’s progress. So the question becomes: How do we decide who the bad teachers are if we don’t like the use of standardized testing? The advantage of standardized testing lies in the name itself: it’s standardized. A program in which teachers are evaluated in their own classroom by an independent observer could conceivably accomplish the same purpose, but the ratings would not be standardized. That is, the personal disposition of the observers would allow a large amount of variation between assessments.

Most public school teachers work very hard for not very much money. But in a school system like New York, where tenured teachers who have twenty five years seniority are getting paid well over a hundred thousand dollars a year, there has to be some sort of accountability mechanism. Standardized testing may the imperfect but functional choice.

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