Earlier this month, the Los Angeles Times sued the Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD) to obtain its teacher ratings, calculated using students’ standardized test scores. The Times, which already published LAUSD teacher ratings two years ago, argues that doing so is justified because it’s an important service to parents and the public.
Yes, of course, there must be school accountability. But we have good evidence to believe that (1) the Times’ crusade won’t actually help us identify effective teachers, (2) it may actually damage teacher (and student) performance, and (3) it may distract educators and the public from more important school reforms.
First, research has suggested time and again that “value-added” ratings of teachers don’t provide an accurate picture of that teacher’s abilities. The dramatic fluctuation of a teacher’s ratings from one year to the next suggests that there are numerous factors impacting these ratings besides teacher effectiveness. Some of these factors include the quality of students’ home life, summer recess (evidence suggests low-income students lose more of what they learned, perhaps because they don’t have it reinforced as much at home), variations in students’ abilities from one year to the next, and school attendance.
Second, there’s the psychological toll that value-added evaluation can take on teachers and that high-stakes testing can take on students.
Research has shown that high-stakes testing lowers the morale of teachers, increases their stress-levels, and makes them feel disempowered, guilty, anxious, and alienated—particularly those at high-poverty schools. Not exactly a recipe for teacher growth and improvement. And the public humiliation of having these ratings reported in the Times can only intensify these issues. Remember the old days when students were seated in a corner wearing a dunce hat? There’s a reason we don’t do that anymore, mainly because of the damage it does to a child’s self-worth. Teachers are no different. Researchers have found that public humiliation leads to high levels of depression, anxiety, anger, and helplessness.
Critics of value-added evaluation are very concerned that these kinds of ratings will discourage effective teachers from ever choosing to work at our neediest schools. Why would they subject themselves to the strong chance of failure, difficult working conditions, and the possibility of public humiliation?
Even more critical to the debate is the emotional impact high-stakes testing has on our students. One study asked elementary students to draw pictures of how they’d felt during a standardized test they’d taken the previous day. Not a single student’s drawing suggested that the experience had been a positive one. Instead, students drew pictures depicting nervousness, anger, isolation, and powerlessness (see image at left for an example).
Research has also shown that students who experience test-anxiety don’t perform as well on tests, which then lowers their self-worth. This turns into a vicious cycle for low-performing students whose anxiety increases with successively poor performances. Research has even suggested that lower-achieving students feel less valued and receive poorer treatment from both teachers and peers.
Perhaps worst of all, students who spend their days learning how to take tests more often than not lose their love of learning—the one thing that schools are supposed to instill in students above all else.
Finally, the extreme emphasis on testing begs a larger question: What is the purpose of education? Is it to produce students who can do well on tests or who are equipped to thrive in life and form meaningful relationships?
Science has shown that we’re not one-dimensional beings who fit into a tidy box. Instead, we’re very complex, made up of interrelated emotional and cognitive processes that science is just beginning to discover, let alone understand. And research clearly suggests that teaching both cognitive and social-emotional skills leads to academic success as well as a meaningful life—a life made up of strong social connections, purpose-driven activities, and positive emotions.
I’d love to see newspapers celebrate schools that do this well rather than demeaning teachers who need our support.