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Tilles: Don't grade teachers on test scores

Photo Credit: Paul Tong/Tribune Media Services Illustration

Roger Tilles is Long Island's representative on the New York State Board of Regents.

Last summer, legislation based on the federal Race to the Top program was passed in Albany to create an accurate system of evaluating teachers and principals. Yesterday, the question before the Board of Regents was whether the proposed system would actually achieve that goal. I voted "no."

Let me say at the outset that I support a much more rigorous system of evaluation than we currently have. It's imperative that we develop an effective, fair way to promote better student learning. Unfortunately, however, the proposed regulations -- which would base 20 percent to 40 percent of a teacher's evaluation on state test scores -- would be neither fair nor effective.

While any teacher evaluation system must include a measure of growth of student learning over time, a snapshot of a student's skills, understanding and content knowledge doesn't give a true picture of a teacher's performance. Our current state tests are not designed to measure growth from year to year, and we are years away from having valid state tests that are.

The high-stakes consequences -- essentially, teachers losing their jobs -- mean that teachers will be tempted to concentrate on the kids who'll yield the greatest results in their evaluation. If average student growth is the vital statistic, then instructors might favor teaching those who will show the largest gain. If achieving a critical standard is the goal, then teachers may concentrate on those who are closest to that standard. In either scenario, too many students will be shortchanged.

Student learning is complex. It is affected by many factors, including prior learning, family background, level of poverty, classroom and school culture, access to private tutors, learning disabilities and even school-district governance. There is no way all these factors can be taken into account in a state assessment.

What's more, by using student test scores to evaluate and, ultimately, determine compensation for teachers, we are adding to the corrupting influence of high-stakes tests on our education programs. When money for districts, salaries and even hiring and firing stems from these tests, it pushes everyone involved to do well on them at all costs -- including cheating -- without looking at the consequences on the lives of the students and our future citizens.

No Child Left Behind already emphasizes testing in the core subjects of math and English, and we have seen that our young people -- and by now, even older recent graduates -- know very little about how our government works or how to be a good citizen. We are snuffing out the creative thinking that the arts bring to us, since arts education has been eliminated in so many schools, replaced with skill and drill preparation. We are downplaying foreign languages at a time when we live in a global village and risk excluding our country from the global economy.

Adding teacher evaluations to this downward spiral will accentuate the decline of an already reeling system.

Further, the school districts are ill-prepared to handle the fallout if teacher-evaluation scores are made public. Districts will have to figure out how to offer professional development for teachers deemed ineffective while leaving them in the classroom -- all the while, understandably, parents will be raising the roof if their sons or daughters are assigned to an "ineffective" or "developing" teacher. The stigma attached to a teacher who may be inappropriately labeled based upon an invalid use of inappropriate tests will be a boon for the legal community. Student learning scores should lead to interventions for students and professional development for teachers -- but the proposed system isn't designed to lead to improved instruction because it has no diagnostic aspect.

I support a great majority of the Race to the Top program initiatives: better and richer clinical training for teachers, development of assessments that can be used diagnostically for students and teachers, common core standards, a more comprehensive data system enabling better identification of learning areas of need, new models for turnaround schools. I believe all of these can improve student learning. If, however, we perpetuate and even enable the crushing high-stakes nature of student achievement tests and extend them to teacher and principal evaluations, the reform train will be derailed.

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