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Behind The Test: Using Test Scores To Grade Teachers

Josh Davis
Teachers have a lot riding ontheir students' standardized test scores. Improvement can mean financial rewards. But little or no improvement can lead to a teacher losing their job.

Louisiana’s schools have a lot riding on student performance on standardized tests, and the stakes can be even higher for educators.

Louisiana is one of over 20 states around the country that ties teacher evaluations to student performance. Teachers can receive huge financial bonuses if their students do well, and they can lose their jobs if they don't.

In the second installment of WWNO's Behind The Test series, Lens reporter Jessica Williams examines the pressures faced by teachers being evaluated using a “value-added” model of judging performance based on students' progress in the classroom.

Read more of Jessica Williams' reporting at The Lens.

Success Preparatory Academy teacher Christy Ivie’s class of third graders are seven days away from the state’s iLEAP test.

“There’s definitely a countdown,” Ivie says, and she’s excited that her kids get to show what they know. But it’s also nerve wracking, because the test is such a big deal for them. If they don’t pass, they’ll repeat the third grade.

It’s a big deal for Ivie, too. Her students’ performance will help decide whether she’s considered an effective teacher.

Louisiana is one of over 20 states around the country that ties teacher evaluations to student performance. Right now, teachers are judged subjectively — at the beginning of the year, the principal and a teacher discuss how well they think kids will do on tests. But going forward, a lot less will be based on subjectivity.

Value-added is an objective model that comes up with an anticipated score for a child, based on his past performance, behavior and other variables. LSU professor George Noell is the creator of Louisiana’s value-added model.

“At a conceptual level, it takes youngsters in any given year, and looks at the youngster's scores for all three preceding years,” Noell says. “And then it takes into account non-academic factors like attendance, discipline history such as suspensions, and environmental factors like poverty. It creates an exact number for each kid based on all of that data.”

If the child reaches the target, the teacher is considered effective.

Maybe we should just put a barcode in every child that's born? This child was born on this street, it had this parent, it had this opportunity. They'll go no further.

But if a teacher can’t bring kids’ scores to where they should be after three years, they can be fired. There are some safeguards, though, Noell says: though half the evaluation is based on test scores; the other half is based on classroom observation.

Christie Ivie says getting feedback based on her kids’ test scores has been helpful. Still, she says a single testing day doesn’t always show where a kid actually is.

The state’s teachers unions have also loudly criticized this type of evaluation. Louisiana Federation of Teachers president Steve Monaghan says you just can’t predict where a kid will end up.

“Maybe we should just put a barcode in every child that’s born, and just put it there. This child was born on this street, it had this parent, it had this opportunity. Scan it. They’ll go no further,” says Monaghan. “It evokes images of Brave New World. Everyone’s assigned, everyone knows.”

Critics in North Carolina, New York and other states agree with Monaghan. They also say that models like Noell’s can be inaccurate.

Education Research Alliance director Doug Harris has written a book about judging teachers based on tests. He says that though most systems that do this have problems, Louisiana’s is one of the best.

“They are following all of the main rules, the things that we know of as best practices in value-added,” Harris says. “Which isn’t to say there aren’t problems. I think everybody recognizes that the measures still have some problems, even when you do it the best way you can.”

Noell understands the criticism of the value-added system. But if not his model, then what?

“Value-added may be coarse. It may not be as fine grained as I would like it to be on sorting out weak and bad teachers,” Noell says. “But I can tell you, there are teachers who repeatedly produce poor results, year over year over year. And at some point I would ask, when do the grownups owe it to the kids to say, ‘this just can’t be allowed to continue to repeat indefinitely.”

Christy Ivie's performance isn’t the only one that can be judged by value-added. Her boss, too, was judged on his school’s performance last year.

There are incentives for high scores — Success Prep was part of an incentive fund that gave some teachers up to $2500. Teachers at another school network, New Beginnings, have gotten more than a half-million dollars in bonuses for high scores on test.

Researcher Harris says that these high stakes can cause some folks to "teach to the test," or to teach test-taking strategy instead of what kids should actually know.

Success Prep administrator Daniel O’Connell says that’s almost like cheating.

“I’d rather lose than cheat to win,” O’Connell says. “Everybody is trying to prove that you can do this, and you can do this the right way. Nobody wants to give any reason for people to doubt that we are really able to have the sort of transformation that we’re going for in the end.”

Eight out of nine of Success Prep’s teachers were rated proficient or higher last school year, the last year value-added was in play. Though schools will continue to link student performance with teacher effectiveness, the more objective evaluations are on hold for two years, while Louisiana transitions to tougher tests.

Support for education reporting on WWNO comes from Baptist Community Ministries, Entergy, The Hechinger Report, and the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation.

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