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13.5.07

Poor test scores affirm need for real teacher evaluation

It’s politically correct in Louisiana to favor pay raises for elementary and secondary school teachers. This is in part because Louisiana has among the lower (but by no means the lowest) average salaries and is about the poorest state in the union. The official story is that the two are connected, the theory being higher pay means better education producing more economic development. As often is the case, the official story is wrong as demonstrated by the most recent test score statistics.

Difficulty understates the task of interpreting the statewide averages GEE (given to high score students in order for them to graduate) exams in a positive fashion. For the latter, first-time test-taking students treaded water in 2007 compared to 2006 on the sciences and social studies portion, while there were significant drops on the math and (especially) English portions. For the LEAP (given to fourth and eighth graders necessary to pass to advance to the next grade), the results overall were about even over the previous year with just one area of significant improvement, English.

The news is much worse on an absolute scale. While the state might put a happy face on the results for the most part, the dirty secret is to “pass,” one need only score at the “approaching basic” level on some of the tests – below the “basic,” “mastery,” and “advanced” categories. While the proportion of those scoring below approaching basic in all cases was usually less than 20 percent, when making the basic level the cutoff, that rose to an alarming almost 40 percent – even more on a few.

Note that approaching basic is defined as “a student at this level has only partially demonstrated the fundamental knowledge and skills needed for the next level of schooling.” The bottom line: even under these relaxed standards, 26 percent of fourth graders and 34 percent of eighth graders failed to be promoted. (Half of the GEE is given at the end of 10th grade, the other at the end of 11th, with other opportunities to take it again to pass, so there is no proportion “graduated” score that is reported.) Reconsider that: about one-fourth of fourth graders and one-third of eighth graders in Louisiana failed to be promoted.

This is poor quality education. And you can only go so far by blaming factors other than the overall quality of teaching itself for such a high failure rate. We don’t know exactly how much of factor inferior teaching plays in this because, unlike in many states, there is no teacher accountability measured in Louisiana – unions have for decades blocked attempts at any kind of evaluation for teacher quality.

Nevertheless, ideas to appropriate a pay raise for teachers circulate in the Legislature, to those currently working and across the board without regard for merit, on the curious, counterintuitive notion that as soon as salaries go up, these teachers will start doing a better job. This position in no way takes into account an investigation into how good of a job as a whole teachers are doing in Louisiana and whether that merits a raise. If scores were going up on the whole, slowly but surely since the last raise a couple of years ago, a case could be made for a raise (that is, above the cost of living – they already get annual cost of living raises). But why reward in aggregate a work force whose product is getting shoddier?

To remind of a sentiment that has appeared in this space many times, if pay increases are given to teachers, given the data a dubious proposition at best, the very least policy-makers can do is to insist on the implementation of regular testing and other accountability measures concerning teachers along with it. Otherwise, these unacceptable education outcomes simply will continue on, and lack of economic development in Louisiana along with it, no matter how high teachers’ salaries go.

1 comment:

James said...

LA teachers have used that tack for years-raise their pay and results will improve. Does this mean they're holding back pending pay raises? They demonstrated the depth of the "it's for the children" feeling by suddenly taking a day off to go screech at he Capitol.

Jeff is right. There's some poor teaching going on and raising pay has, to date, yielded very little return. I'm still burning after hearing East Baton Rouge's Charlotte Placide gush about being so pleased that only 40% bombed on the tests...