An Op-Ed by Dr. Wayne Au

The approval of the education reform bill by the Washington State Senate in support of laying off teachers based on “performance evaluations” brings a critical issue back into the public conversation: In the midst of drastic cuts to public education, standardized tests are too inaccurate to be used in determining teacher layoffs.

On the surface, the logic of using tests to evaluate teachers seems like commonsense: The more effective a teacher is, the better his or her students will do on state tests.

Supporters of using standardized tests to evaluate teachers continually remind us that teachers play an important role in student achievement. Many of us instinctively know this to be true, and the research supports this position.

However, just because teachers contribute to student achievement does not mean teachers are solely responsible for how a student performs on a standardized test, nor does it mean we can equate effective teaching (or learning) with higher test scores.

As a 2010 U.S. Department of Education research report entitled, “Error Rates in Measuring Teacher and School Performance Based on Student Test Score Gains,” discloses, “More than 90 percent of the variation in student gain scores is due to variation in student level factors that are not in the control of the teacher.”

Dr. David Berliner, Regents Professor at Arizona State University, concurs. Berliner identifies six out-of-school factors such as inadequate access to health care, food insecurity, and poverty-related stress, among others, which severely limit what schools can do on their own to improve student achievement.

We have to remember that while teachers are critically necessary, they are not always sufficient to single-handedly overcome all of the potential poverty, inadequate health care or housing, and the myriad other issues that their students bring with them into their classes. Nor should we expect them to be.

There are many other problems with using standardized tests to evaluate teachers. For instance, according to the above-mentioned Department of Education report, statistical measurement errors can lead to as many as 1 in 4 “average” teachers to be mistakenly identified as “below average.” In That’s a 25% chance of having your job called into question simply due to test inaccuracy.

We simply should not mistakenly assume that effective teaching equates with test score achievement. Nor should we be evaluating teachers based on the life circumstances of their students.

By suggesting that teacher layoffs should be driven by performance evaluations, Washington State policymakers seemingly substitute the simplistic anti-teacher union rhetoric currently sweeping the nation for the more substantial public conversation we should be having about rising poverty, racial resegregation, and the steady defunding of the public sector – including the defunding of public education that is being experienced in Washington State and nationwide.

Teachers should be evaluated, but in a manner that is fair and accurate. Using standardized tests to make such evaluations is neither, and until we recognize this reality, all decisions suggesting layoffs be tied to teacher performance should be questioned. I hope that Washington State policymakers use educational research to inform their important decisions about the future of our schools, students, and teachers.

A former Seattle Public Schools teacher and student, Dr. Wayne Au is an Assistant Professor in the Education Program at University of Washington-Bothell Campus, editor with the progressive education magazine, Rethinking Schools, and author of Unequal By Design: High-Stakes Testing and the Standardization of Inequality.

You can hear Dr. Au at the,

  • Fighting Racism in the Public Schools: A Forum

    Thursday, May 19th, 2011 at 7:00 pm
    Mt. Zion Baptist Church
    1634 19th Ave.
    Seattle, WA 98122

    Sponsored By: Social Equality Educators (SEE) and Parents Across America


    James Bible
    Civil rights attorney and the president of the King County chapter of the NAACP

    Wayne Au
    Professor of Education at the University of Washington, Editor of Rethinking Schools magazine, and author of Unequal by Design: The Standardization of Inequality

    Olga Addae
    President of the Seattle Education Association

    Gabriella Gutierrez Y Muhs
    Seattle University Professor, Latin American & Women Studies