Student grades don't show performance
September 21, 1999
My son looked up from his Cheerios one morning last week as I made his lunch at the kitchen counter.
“We get grades this year,” he said. His tone was unnaturally even, the way it gets when he’s trying to cover a rising panic. I understood his worry. Sometimes the classwork is a challenge, but he is heart-breakingly tenacious and, against all odds, loves school.
I thought about him as I read that the Denver teachers’ union approved a pilot program that ties merit raises to students’ test scores. The premise is that the higher a class’s test scores, the better the teacher must be.
I can think of a few other ways to interpret jumps in test scores:
The higher a class’s test scores, the better the teacher might be at teaching test-taking.
Or: The higher a class’s test scores, the better the teacher might be at directing learning-disabled, low-scoring kids into other classes or other schools.
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The goal of the Denver experiment, of course, is laudable. They’re trying to find a way as most public school districts in America are to improve education. Test scores provide a tangible accounting of student performance and thus seem a logical measurement by which to rank teachers.
But have we produced better students simply because they are more adept at filling in multiple-choice bubbles with a No. 2 pencil?
If one believes that part of the problem with public education is unmotivated teachers and clearly that’s the message behind this Denver proposal then let’s motivate them. Let’s treat them like professionals. Let’s not ask them to use their master’s degrees to monitor food fights in the cafeteria and to wear neon traffic vests and wave stop signs in the cross walks. Let’s give them the resources to keep up on the latest educational research. And let’s pay teachers as if our children’s futures depended on them.
Retired teacher Frank McCourt, author of “Angela’s Ashes” and the upcoming sequel “Tis,” got it right in the New York Times last Sunday.
“It’s my dream that teaching become the glamorous profession,” he said. “The ones who are in the public-school system are heroic. There should be a Teacher Hall of Fame. It should be the biggest event, bigger than the Oscars ‘Ms. Smith of P.S. 13 has just made a breakthrough in teaching the dangling participle. She gets Teacher of the Year!’ with everybody jostling to get near Ms. Smith to shake her hand.”
As my son finished his Cheerios, I told him I didn’t care about grades. “You know what we care about? How hard you work. That’s the only grade that matters to us.”
I know grades can’t truly reflect my son’s performance any more than test scores can truly reflect his teacher’s. No test can measure the creeping smile on a child’s face when a teacher unlocks the mystery of how a clock works or opens his mind to the possibility that “Charlotte’s Web” is about more than a pig and a spider.
Judging a teacher’s worth by students’ test scores is like judging a preacher by how well his flock quotes Scripture. You might find yourself flush with orators, but there might not be a holy man in the bunch. (Copyright 1999 Newspaper Enterprise Assn. Joan Ryan is a columnist for the San Francisco Chronicle. Send comments to her at her e-mail at email@example.com.)