Tag: education

Even DOE's Testing Experts Cast Doubts on...Tests
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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Merit Pay for Teachers: Take Time to Do It Right
August 3, 2010

When Florida public schools open for a new school year this month, students and teachers will take up where they left off last May.  But new policies now being put into place will create big changes in the next few years.  Among them:  how subjects are taught, which standardized tests students take, and how teachers are evaluated and paid.

Two developments last week moved Florida further along its decade-long education accountability path, as discussed in FCFEP's education report, "Florida's Latest Strategy for Improving Schools Promises More of the Same -- and Uncertain Results."

First, the Florida Board of Education formally adopted the new national voluntary Common Core State Standards, a set of expectations for student learning in math and English/language arts that eventually will replace the Sunshine State Standards.  New assessments ultimately will follow, replacing the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test (FCAT).

Secondly, of more immediate concern, Florida was named one of 19 finalists in the competition to receive a share of federal Race to the Top education reform funds.  If Florida is among the winners announced about September 1, the state Department of Education (DOE) and local school districts would split as much as $700 million over four years to implement a variety of “reforms,” including merit pay for teachers.

Merit pay has been controversial for decades.  Advocates contend that there’s no evidence that the current pay system – based on years of service and the degree(s) earned by the teacher – correlates with student learning.  They say merit pay will reward the best teachers and weed out others.

Opponents object to tying salaries too much to the achievement level of students of widely varying abilities, family background and support, and previous educational experiences. Moreover, most studies find no conclusive evidence linking existing merit-pay plans with higher student achievement.

Florida already has a merit-pay law already on the books, although it’s not proven effective.  Adopted by the legislature in 2001 and revised in 2007, it created what Florida DOE calls “the most recent rendition” of teacher pay-for-performance efforts in Florida.  DOE admits that difficulties in linking student test data with teachers – particularly for teachers who don’t teach subjects and grades where the FCAT is required – have limited the impact of the current merit-pay requirement.

Nevertheless, some kind of merit pay is likely for Florida in the next few years.  Education-accountability reformers, the Obama administration, and legislative leaders are propelling the effort in the belief that nothing is more important to improving schools than – and that linking teachers’ performance to test results is essential.  

Florida DOE plans to develop a system that measures test-score improvement by each student and makes this “student-growth” the primary factor in evaluating teachers and principals and determining any future salary increases.  Furthermore, school districts would base decisions on employment contracts – “tenure,” or permanent job security – on those evaluations.

Teachers and their unions are joining the effort – as long as they are involved and evaluations of students include multiple measures, not just students’ standardized test scores.  The Florida Education Association supports the state’s Race to the Top application, which relies heavily on merit pay.  Local teachers’ unions also are participating in the design of merit plans in areas around the state, including in Volusia County, where the local union received $125,000 from the American Federation of Teachers to help the school district devise a pilot plan.

The most ambitious effort with the most money is occurring in the Hillsborough County school district. The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, increasingly a major player in education nationally, is providing $100 million to the Hillsborough school system to devise a system linking teacher pay with student performance.  The grant will fund more than 100 mentors for teachers and train evaluators in assessing teacher performance.

The lessons seem clear.  Successful implementation of merit pay will require time, money, and involvement from teachers themselves.  While the theory of tying students’ test scores to teacher pay is reasonable, practical concerns dictate that merit pay systems be tested through pilot projects, revised, and implemented carefully. 

Trying to accomplish too much too soon by a legislative mandate – without investing the time, money, and collaboration necessary to do it right – would only create unnecessary turmoil.

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Florida's Spending Priorities Compared to Other States
April 19, 2010

Compared to other states, Florida spent proportionately less of its Fiscal Year 2008 budget on elementary and secondary education, higher education, public assistance, and "other" purposes than the national average of all states.  However, Florida spent proportionately more of its budget on Medicaid, transportation, and corrections than the national average.

When compared to the individual 50 states, Florida’s proportional spending on these programs ranks as follows:

Elementary & Secondary Ed: 26th in Spending
Higher Ed: 30th in Spending
Public Assistance: 45th in Spending
Medicaid: 10th in Spending
Corrections: 3th in Spending
Transportation: 12th in Spending
Other:  32nd in Spending

Source:  National Association of State Budget Officers “2008 State Expenditure Report,” Table 5, December 2009.

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