September 1, 2010

Florida’s award of $700 million over four years in the federal Race to the Top education reform competition puts the state directly on a path to link teacher pay to student test scores.  The move toward so-called merit pay is occurring throughout the nation, leaving controversy in its wake.

Some form of merit pay is part of Florida’s future and teacher unions are recognizing that reality.  (See Florida’s Latest Strategy for Improving Schools Promises More of the Same – and Uncertain Results and Merit Pay for Teachers:  Take Time to Do It Right).  But education researchers and some strong reform advocates caution that the use of student test scores in evaluating teachers should be approached carefully.

Test scores alone can be unreliable indicators of a teacher’s ability, they say.

Support for this argument comes from an unexpected source.  Even the testing auditors used by the Florida Department of Education to bless disputed FCAT scores downplayed test-score reliability in explaining questionable data in early August.

“…[T]est scores, whether they are scores for students, scores for schools, or scores for districts, are not perfect….School reform and improved instruction are difficult. Sometimes the progress is simply too hard to detect with current statewide assessments,” one of the auditors said.

The other auditor listed other limitations often cited by teachers and others who complain that schools have become testing factories.

“…[A]t the school level, the set of students tested in any particular year can play a significant role in the results – there truly is a “good class, bad class” issue that needs to be taken into account when evaluating school results….

"Individual student scores have a large amount of random variation in them.  This is true not only for FCAT, but any standardized achievement test will have limitations on interpretation based on the limited sample of student achievement on which these tests are based.”

Whether merit pay plans are devised with recognition of their limitations as well as their potential benefits will be crucial in reaching Florida's education goals.

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