Friday, January 13, 2006

Don't Use ISTEP to Measure Teacher Performance

State Senator Teresa Lubbers, R-Indianapolis, wants students’ ISTEP test scores to partially determine whether teachers get to keep their jobs. She is author of a bill that would tie teacher evaluations to test scores.

The bill probably stands little chance of passage. That’s because it’s a dumb idea. Even its author said it could stand some retooling before it is introduced for further consideration.

Lubbers said that if administrators and schools are held accountable for ISTEP scores, then teachers should be, too. But it’s not quite that simple.

Teachers don’t have any control over what mix of students they are given. Some teachers have gifted and talented students, while others have a high percentage of special education students.

Some teachers are assigned college preparatory students who tend to do very well on standardized tests. Other teachers have classes filled primarily with students on the basic education track.

In addition, teachers have no control over the socioeconomic condition of the neighborhoods in which they teach. It is no secret that schools in poorer communities or neighborhoods have a higher percentage of students who fail the ISTEP.

Why should teachers be punished for a condition they have no control over?

Lubbers acknowledges that her legislation needs to be tweaked so that it doesn’t penalize a teacher by looking at a snapshot in time. She said there needs to be a two or three year trend before any kind of disciplinary action is warranted.

Predictably, the Indiana State Teachers’ Association isn’t happy with the bill. The Association says it could result in good teachers being fired. Besides, state law already makes it possible to fire teachers who insist on being incompetent.

Lubbers also said she may, in the future, consider a merit pay bill based on good ISTEP scores. But, again, ISTEP is designed to measure how much students have learned, not the performance of their teachers. Learning is a complex activity that includes much more than how competent the teacher is.

There are far better means of determining teacher competence than by looking at the test scores of students. Using ISTEP scores to determine the competence of a teacher is like using a yardstick to measure the weight of an apple. It is not the correct tool for the job.

The performance of Indianapolis Public Schools, as measured by students’ ISTEP scores, is abysmal. But students in suburban schools in good neighborhoods, such as White River Township, do much better.

Does that mean teachers in White River Township are superior to those that work for IPS?

Of course it doesn’t.

Relocate the teachers in a suburban school to an underachieving IPS school and move the IPS teachers to the suburbs, and odds are the test scores of both schools will be similar a year after the switch.

Lubbers would reward the teachers in the good schools and punish those in low-performing schools, not because of anything the teachers do, but simply because of the socioeconomic condition of the community where the schools are located.

That’s not to say that teachers cannot make a difference in test scores of their students. They can. But there are far more uncontrollable variables in the equation than a teacher’s effort.

Lubbers bill is ill-founded and without merit. It is probably dead in the water, and rightfully so.

Leave teacher evaluations to the experts in charge, not the politicians in the General Assembly.

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