Former Texas Commissioner of Education Robert Scott appropriately acknowledged and warned in 2012 that the “focus on high-stakes testing is a perversion.” However, Scott was chastised and ignored at the time by Texas lawmakers determined to push more and more testing on our students and teachers.
Since then, a growing number of leaders in Austin — typically policy makers with very limited teaching experience — have become obsessed with misusing student test data, often as a political tool to demonize our underfunded public schools and to promote their privatization. This has reached a critical turning point since legislation now has been introduced tying teacher pay to their students› test scores. Gov. Greg Abbott now is calling for “incentive pay” or “performance pay,” but any form of teacher compensation based on test results must be stopped.
Teachers, more than anyone else, understand the practical uses of testing when used appropriately in the classroom, particularly for assessing students. However, linking teacher salaries to student test scores will exacerbate further the state’s continued misuse of test data for high-stakes purposes. It would prove a heavy blow to authentic education, meaningful curriculum, and professional teaching standards.
The parents of Texas are sick and tired of the overuse and misuse of high-stakes testing. It is incredulous that with the public’s strong disapproval of high stakes testing and the overwhelming research invalidating standardized test results that teacher pay and test scores are even in the same conversation.
To fully understand why merit pay is a bad idea, we must address the concept of academic readiness. Academic readiness is what each student brings to the classroom and is fundamental to student learning. Essentially it amounts to Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, a psychology theory that defines a process for human motivation. The physical and emotional health of a child, the stability of the home, the resources parents can deploy in and out of school — all significantly matter when measuring student performance. While student growth and learning are the goals of education, measuring that growth based on high-stakes testing can’t be isolated fairly and then applied to a single teacher. Capturing test data is valuable, but paying teachers based on the results is not.
The main catalyst for testing perversion is the for-profit ed-tech industry promoting standardized testing. Those leading this industry have limited teaching experience and shallow understanding of the significance of academic readiness. Not only do they fail to understand it conceptually, they have absolutely no way to quantify it in their far-flung formulas gauging student growth through test scores.
Some students arrive “ready” to learn with their basic health and safety needs met — and others do not. As a teacher, if I’m going to be paid based on student growth and measured learning, you must fill my class on day one with students who are ready academically to show performance at the fastest rate. What formula will be used for paying teachers with students who are not academically ready to learn based on Maslow’s external influences, which proponents of merit pay conveniently ignore?
Performance pay experiments in other states have received dismal results. Uniformly, only a small percentage of teachers receive the incentive-based merit pay. This results in high teacher turnover, a growing number of inexperienced teachers filling classrooms, campus division — and, of course — more teaching to the test. Indeed, current proposals in Texas would result only in a small fraction of teachers receiving higher pay, which doesn’t address the needs of all teachers who now on average earn $7,000 less than the national average teacher salary.
The American Statistical Association also has found merit pay problematic and unreliable. Classroom populations are not built randomly. Teachers across the state are assigned students in preferential groupings that vary widely from district to district. The difference in academic readiness is profound. Any concept of paying teachers based on the results of test scores quantitatively is invalid, professionally cruel and demoralizing to the academic culture.
In the final analysis all students — especially those coming to school not academically ready — deserve a high-quality and equally-accessible education. The reality is many of these students need and deserve special services, and some never get them.
Let’s stop the Texas Legislature from continuing down a perverted path of misusing test data in public education. A better path forward is to pay all our hard-working Texas educators a professional salary and a real across the board raise without gamesmanship. It is time and our teachers and students deserve it.
Ray McMurrey is secretary-treasurer of the Texas American Federation of Teachers, which represents 65,000 teachers and other public school employees statewide.