Over at the National Journal’s group edu-bigwig blog, they’re debating the question “Are the Race To the Top Requirements Fair?” A lot of the discussion centers on the RTT requirement that states eliminate prohibitions against linking student test score data with individual teachers. Most of the bloggers are in favor of this, on the grounds that outlawing the use of information about how much students learn in evaluating the extent to which teachers help students learn is insane. But National Education Association president Dennis Van Roekel disagrees, writing:
We’re concerned about the effectiveness and reliability of requiring states to link data on student achievement to individual teachers for the purpose of teacher and principal evaluation. Teachers who work with disadvantaged students shouldn’t be “evaluated” based on whether their students hit a particular test target on a particular timeline. And we certainly shouldn’t base additional compensation on whether students meet particular testing targets on a particular day. We need to offer incentives so that our best teachers teach the students most in need of assistance, not incentives to teach students most likely to score highest on a standardized test. As with NCLB, good intentions can lead to unintended—and unacceptable—consequences.
An interesting sort of political science question is just how long the NEA can get away with vague and disingenuous comments like this. Nobody–nobody–wants to judge teachers based purely on the percentage of students who meet a given cut score on a test at the end of the year. That would be crazy. All reasonable conversations about the use of end-of-the-year student test score data for teacher evaluations begin with the assumption that we should (A) account for where students were at the beginning of the year and/or take into account other data about their academic histories, and (B) not rely exclusively on test-score data. Van Roekel knows this. Everybody knows this. The people pushing for the student data-teacher linkages are the same people who want to get more high-quality teachers in the classrooms of disadvantaged students. They’re not idiots; of course they don’t want to create an unfair evaluation system that would directly counter that goal. But conceding that makes the whole thing seem a lot more rational and then where would the NEA be?
Also, it’s easy enough to raise the specter of measurement error by talking about “particular testing targets on a particular day.” But that requires a level of seriousness and empiricism about how the numbers tend to play out. Measurement error is real and significant but also finite and measurable and thus subject to sensible decision-making and interpretation. If a given teacher’s students all consistently fail to meet a particular target on a particular day, year after year, even though most of them were hitting targets in previous years–hey, that might mean something! But acknowledging that would take the conversation to a place the NEA clearly doesn’t want to go.