Roosevelt Institute | Cornell University

Evaluating Educators Using Standardized State Exams Will Not Make America Catch Up

By Hannah RitterPublished May 5, 2019

Picture of a typical bubble answer sheet for a multiple choice examination
As America continues to lag behind other countries in the academic arms race, politicians scapegoat teachers for low student performance. However, evaluating teachers based on students’ standardized test scores is ineffective, unfair, and actually hinders learning.

In the early 2000s, education reform became an integral piece of the federal agenda due to the popular fear that America’s education system was lagging those of other countries. Looking for a scapegoat, people directed their blame at teachers, claiming student underperformance was the product of substandard teaching. State assessments would be lawmakers’ golden tool for evaluating teacher effectiveness. These fallacious ideas were translated into action through the implementation of federal policies. Obama’s Race to the Top initiative sparked federally inspired education reform by providing federal grants to states that “address key areas of K-12 education reform” including the “development of rigorous assessments and support for teachers to become more effective. Furthermore, this policy shifted the focus of education reform to assess teacher and student effectiveness through difficult state exams and led 34 states to change their education policies. America’s “race to the top”  is complemented by George Bush’s No Child Left Behind Act by mandating that states administer math and reading tests to students in grades 3-8 contingent with federal requirements. Through this policy, lawmakers estimated that the increase in academic accountability will lead all students to meet or exceed state standards. These expectations placed unfair burdens on school districts by pressuring them to meet standards. Though they were intended to improve education systems, federally required state examinations have tainted public education by placing unnecessary, unfair, and confining standards on educators and students. Furthermore, using state examinations to evaluate teachers hinders education quality and it is ineffective means of evaluating and improving teacher performance. For these reasons, teachers should not be evaluated based on their students’ test scores.

Using the examinations for teacher evaluations is not only unfair, but it also creates pressure which hinders the learning environment. Since the tests are used as the “chief accountability metric for educators”, teachers fear poor evaluations and the potential consequence of losing their jobs as a result of student underperformance. In an effort to protect themselves from bad evaluations and possible job loss, educators focus their curricula solely on preparing for the test. To ensure that students perform well on the state examinations, classroom focus shifts from creative activities and projects to “rote memorization”. In addition, the imposition of standardized state expectations creates a “one size fits all” curriculum which is blind to the needs of individual students. According to a research study conducted by Boston College’s Center for the Study of Testing, Evaluation, and Educational Policy teachers changed the way they taught in response to the pressure to improve students’ test scores; since teachers are more likely to teach to the test, students are failing to learn the reasoning skills that experts deem necessary to master the subject. In addition, the manner in which the tests are constructed favors those whose families have higher incomes and education levels.The racial bias in these exams can be observed by apparent racial achievement gaps; usually, the typical black student's score is approximately 75 percent of the typical white student's score on standardized tests. As a result, low state examination scores encouraged the closing of public schools and the firing of teachers in black and Hispanic neighborhoods. In fact, exam results have led the New York City Department of Education to close more than 140 schools since 2003. These attempts at federal education reform stifle capable teachers from educating students in an engaging, creative way.

Finally, judging teachers based on student test scores fails to constructively fix the external issues that undercut student academic achievement. The tests do not give any individualized feedback to teachers about how to become more effective. Instead of focusing on progress and development, the tests are designed to find punishable faults. They are designed to criticize rather than to help. In fact, blaming teachers for the faults in America’s academic system detracts policymakers for remedying huge social problems that impede on student achievement including poverty and racial segregation. No matter how talented the teacher is, student performance is affected by other factors including the student’s inherent ability and, their poverty level, and their socio economic status. A recent study found that out-of-school factors contribute 60% to variance in student test scores while teachers have 9% influence. Instead of placing hardworking teachers under a microscope, lawmakers should focus on fixing the external social factors which influence on student test scores the most.

Works Cited