Why Student Test Scores Are A Poor Measure Of A Teacher
By STEVE STEMLER
April 27, 2012
Think about the best teacher you ever had. What is it that made him or her great?
I have posed this question dozens of times to students in my psychology courses at Wesleyan University and to my colleagues in various academic fields. A small minority mention their favorite teacher's pedagogical skills — things like content mastery, how prepared the teacher was or how well the teacher explained concepts. But the vast majority talk about how engaging the teacher was, how the teacher inspired them to want to learn more about the topic, how the teacher was able to make a connection with them, or how the teacher made the material practical or meaningful to them personally — all facets of what I call a teacher's practical intelligence.
These responses echo what my colleagues and I found in our research on teacher effectiveness: Across cultures, people agree that great teaching involves strong pedagogical skills and — perhaps more important — practical intelligence.
The approximately 1,000 Connecticut teachers who rallied at the state Capitol last week to voice concerns about Gov.Dannel P. Malloy's proposed education plan certainly know something about what makes for good teaching. Among their targets is a proposal tying teacher evaluations — which, under a new system, are based partially on student test scores — to decisions on pay and tenure. In pursuing education reform for Connecticut, it must be questioned whether student test scores really measure the elements that make for a great teacher.
Sure, students should be mastering content. Nobody disputes that. But aside from a few basics, most content knowledge in a field of study changes over time as thinking evolves and research emerges. What students really need to develop is resourcefulness, creativity, a passion for learning and the skills for learning how to learn, among other things.
By focusing on students' content mastery as the primary measure of teacher effectiveness, we miss the most important job of an effective teacher — to energize students to be passionate about the material and to develop a broad range of cognitive skills.
Students whose passions are stirred by my courses are not always those at the top of the class. A former student recently told me that even though he took my Intro Psych course pass/fail and was not a psychology major, he loved it and found himself frequently referring to material from that class. As a teacher, this is exactly the effect I hope to have. If this student's test scores were used as a measure of my teaching, however, I may not look very effective. With other demands on his time, he had not devoted the effort required for a high grade. Yet, he clearly was inspired by the lessons and energized to learn more and connect the concepts to his life.
This raises an important second point about tying teacher evaluations to student test scores: The scores reflect a variety of factors, many of which are outside of a teacher's control.
Students facing family problems, lacking the resources to complete homework or dealing with physical illness, poor nutrition or emotional issues are likely to see their test scores suffer. The model of rewarding or punishing teachers based on their students' performance is derived from the psychological theory of behaviorism: Rewarding people for desirable behaviors will promote more of those behaviors, while punishing them for undesirable behaviors will discourage those behaviors.
But when people are rewarded or punished for actions outside of their direct control, they can develop what psychologists call "Learned Helplessness." Indeed, punishing or rewarding teachers based on factors outside their control will undermine whatever good work they are doing.
Teachers will learn to believe that their actions have no connection to the consequences they face, and may ultimately give up or burn out. Perhaps more disturbing is that even when these policies are remedied or removed, the feeling of learned helplessness remains. We are potentially losing a generation of teachers by tying critical, life-altering decisions on pay or tenure to an evaluation system that rewards or punishes them based on factors outside their direct control.
Don't get me wrong. I am all for accountability, as is every teacher I know. But we must ensure that teachers are held accountable for things that truly relate to teaching excellence — such as pedagogical skills and practical intelligence — and that they are not being penalized for factors they can't control.
Steve Stemler is an assistant professor of psychology at Wesleyan University and vice president of the New England Educational Research Organization.
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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