Testing: A formula for disaster

Published on Thursday, October 11, 2012

TestingDid you know that only the very worst doctors’ patients develop high blood pressure or diabetes? 

No really.  It’s true.  It has to be.  What good doctor would allow a patient to continue eating the kind of diet that leads to bad health outcomes?  Doctors are highly trained, well-paid professionals.  If they can’t keep their patients from getting sick, we ought to fire them.  It’s the only way to improve public health in America.

We can replace those ineffective doctors with younger, more energetic doctors who will surely get better results.  And even if the results aren’t better, at least the young doctors are cheaper.

It’s ridiculous of course.  You can spin the same nonsense about dentists whose patients get cavities, lawyers whose clients are convicted, or any other professional who is judged on factors that hardly tell the whole story of their effort or effectiveness.

But somehow, when it comes to evaluating teachers, no one seems to get the joke.  It’s almost an article of faith among reformy types that good teachers will always raise standardized test scores and if scores don’t rise fast enough, then the teacher must be slacking off.

Despite mountains of evidence that student test scores are a poor way to measure teacher effectiveness, many states – including New Jersey – are diving headlong into test-driven evaluation systems, under the guise of “accountability.”

And that’s a shame, because we’d all be well-served by a thoughtful discussion of how to strengthen evaluation.  Let’s be clear: no one wants ineffective doctors, dentists, lawyers, or teachers.  But we want them measured on the things that really matter, on the things that really reflect their effort and ability.  And for teachers, standardized tests just don’t do that. 

Teachers understand.  Parents get it.  But policymakers?  Not always.  So those of us who get it have to keep up the drumbeat.  We have to demand smart, reliable, valid evaluation systems that help truly ineffective teachers improve or move on to something else.

Test-based evaluation will never get us there.  They’re a formula for disaster, which could lead to the loss of some of our most talented teachers for all the wrong reasons. 

We have to do much better.

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