Putting Education Reform To The Test

Classroom Contemplations: What Do Test Results Really Tell Us?

A teacher says test scores often don't reveal much about how well he does his job.


A teacher says test scores often don't reveal much about how well he does his job.

Editor’s note: Names of teachers and students have been changed.

Let’s take a moment to look closely at test scores, which are the basis of our new “teacher accountability” system.

I just got back the test results for the students at the magnet school where I taught this year, and I honestly don’t think they tell you much of anything about my teaching.

This isn’t sour grapes; my students did well on the test. But that doesn’t surprise me because they are at a wonderfully designed small school full of the arts — an experience I think would benefit all students. So, of course their scores were high as a whole.

But when I looked closely at individual scores, I saw some results that made me wonder exactly what was being tested.

One student who did absolutely no homework and very little classwork, not only passed the FCAT, but his scores went up from last year. I’ll get credit for teaching him well even though he failed my class.

His foil, a student who did all her assignments while continuing to improve her writing and analytical skills, saw her test scores go down this year. She still earned the highest rating on the FCAT — a five — but her actual numerical score was slightly lower than last year.

So the evaluation formula will reward me for the performance of my failing student, while I’ll be punished because one of my star students scored lower this year.

I couldn’t find much rhyme or reason for who got what score. Many of the scores seemed randomly assigned. Several of my most sophisticated readers and writers ended up with fours, while a few mediocre students inexplicably got fives.

While looking down the list, I found that I could not predict with much accuracy who would get what. There are two possible explanations for this.

One is that the countless hours I’ve spent with these students have clouded my judgment about their skills. The other is that maybe, just maybe, one two-hour test isn’t an accurate reflection of their skills and shouldn’t be used to determine the effectiveness of my teaching.

This seemingly arbitrary assignment of scores raises serious questions about the design and scoring of the notoriously ambiguous FCAT.

So does the fact that FCAT questions sometimes do not have clear answers.

In February, I attended a professional development session on the FCAT. Our group of teachers worked through a single passage and accompanying questions released from the 2006 test. For two of the five questions, we couldn’t even agree on the best answers.

But, unfortunately, such questions about the quality of the FCAT will never be fully answered, due to the biggest irony in this whole accountability discussion.

The FCAT, which owes its very existence to the idea of accountability, is accountable to no one.

The test questions and answers are never fully released. The piece that makes up fully half of teacher evaluations comes out of a black box we’re not allowed into.

While that is totally ridiculous, the quality of the FCAT isn’t the main issue anyway. We’ll have another standardized test soon enough.

No test is perfect and you’ll always end up with some seemingly capricious scores. That’s why it’s very dangerous to place so much importance (for evaluations of both students and teachers) on one test.

Jeremy Glazer is a Miami-Dade teacher writing about classroom issues for StateImpact Florida. Want to sound off on something Glazer has written? Want to suggest a topic for him? Send us an email at Florida@stateimpact.org and put “Classroom Contemplations” in the subject line.


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