Why Teacher Incentive Pay and Standardized Tests Don’t Help Kids

 

Climb-that-TreeThe Fraser Institute, a Canadian public-policy think tank, has just released a study recommending something called “teacher incentive pay”, based on student achievement. The idea is, teachers would be paid bonuses based on high scores in their students’ standardized test results. This, they say, is key to Canada staying competitive on the world stage.

I always have to laugh – without humour – when the Fraser Institute comes up with something to say about public education. I’m sure they work very hard and do lots of thinking and research to come up with their Studies and Findings and Recommendations; what they lack is a real grasp on the reality of the public school world – dynamics between students, parents, educators, and knowledge.

Here’s what I agree with from the study:

  • We teachers need to help students excel.
  • We need especially to help students with difficulties do the best learning they can.
  • Raising children with solid knowledge and skills is good for Canadian society.
  • Literacy and numeracy are vital skills for all children.
  • It is not ideal that mediocre or bad teachers are paid on the same scale as good or fantastic teachers.

Here’s what I don’t agree with:

  • That standardized test results are an accurate reflection of student abilities and learning, and
  • That standardized test results have anything to do with teacher excellence.

Let’s first look at what’s wrong with standardized tests.

In Ontario, standardized tests were introduced by the Harris government in 1996. Since then, students are tested in math and literacy in Grade 3 and Grade 6, in math only in Grade 9, and in literacy only in Grade 10. Students must pass the Grade 10 literacy test to graduate from high school.

I get why EQAO (Education Quality and Accountability Office) testing seems desirable. The school system is publicly funded; naturally, parents and other taxpayers want to know that their dollars are going to the best use possible.

It also looks good for the government to be able to point to rising test scores and say “Look! We are doing things right! WE ARE ACCOUNTABLE.”

It’s a nice thought, that student abilities and learning could be monitored in such a neat, encapsulated way.

The issue here, as with all standardized tests, is that they are purported to measure “student achievement” – and they don’t. They measure only how those students performed on that particular test on those particular days.

Standardized tests do not reflect what students really know or can really do.

This is partly because, when you administer a standardized test, the setting is unnatural. The first time I scribed part of an EQAO literacy test for a Grade 3 student with an IEP (Individual Education Plan), and was taken aback to read the rules. I was to write down what the student said, including whatever punctuation he remembered to ask me to put in. For the writing section, I was allowed to read him the questions, but I was not allowed to say anything else. Not even small talk to help him feel at ease. If he forgot something, I couldn’t remind him by re-reading. I could not answer any questions he asked me for clarification. I could not even silently turn a page for him if he was looking at the wrong question.

Sure, for students who do well on EQAO, it demonstrates that they can answer those questions. That’s great for them.

But for students who are naturally nervous about being tested, it’s the perfect situation to send their anxiety skyrocketing – whatever their skill level. For students whose minds go blank when the pressure is highest, it’s a nightmare. The fight-or-flight response kicks in so they literally can’t think.

And for those students who struggle with math, reading, and writing, it’s a good way to invalidate the gifts they DO have.

It doesn’t feel anything like the kind of learning we work hard to foster in classrooms every day.

That’s the weirdest part about EQAO. It comes from the provincial government, the same body that provides teachers with the regulation curriculum documents spelling out the knowledge and skills at the provincial standard for each grade level. But the two enterprises – curriculum and EQAO testing – reflect completely different philosophies about education.

The curriculum documents are regularly reviewed and revised, by educators in the system, based on new knowledge about the ways kids learn best, and new perspectives on evolving subject matter. They have changed hugely over the decades, and classrooms have changed with them. The expectation for learning today is much more inclusive, hands-on, exploratory, and real-life-based than it once was.

Most teachers are happy to use and endorse the curriculum documents. The approaches that are set out – and expected, by the government, to be used – are all about finding the different teaching and learning techniques that will eventually engage every child. And helping students remember what their strengths are.

It’s called differentiated instruction: knowing your students, knowing their learning styles, and getting them the tools they need to show you the best work they’re capable of. It’s recognizing that if little Liam has some extra time and less pressure, he’ll produce much better work. It’s noticing that when Sophie has her math manipulatives in front of her, she can do fractions with no problem.

Standardized testing is the antithesis of differentiated instruction.

It’s like saying to teachers, “Take all that work you did to personalize your approaches to different kids – and chuck it in the toilet.”

It’s like saying to kids, “What you’re actually capable of doesn’t matter. What matters is being good at tests.”

Yes, the stuff being tested is important. That’s why we’re already teaching it every day.

Let’s remind ourselves: tests are artificial situations. In life, testing itself is basically the only time you’re expected to produce large amounts of information or solve problems alone, with no chance to ask questions, check facts, collaborate, or research.

As standardized testing becomes more prevalent in Canada, it’s skewing things. Parents are starting to use EQAO scores to decide where to buy a house. Even better, the aforementioned Fraser Institute, in all its self-important wisdom, issues “report cards” ranking different schools, so parents can handily refer to those. The Institute is cagey about what the rankings are based on, but admits it relies heavily on test scores.

By the Institute’s own admission, rankings cannot include data on things like fine arts, trades training, and citizenship – because there is no data on those.

Because most of the things that make up the vitality of a school are not measurable.

Back to teacher incentive pay. Doesn’t it make sense to use financial rewards to motivate teachers to do their very best teaching? If kids do well on the tests, doesn’t that show that the teacher taught them well?

Yes – maybe. There’s a decent chance that children who get high test scores had a good teacher. But there’s just as high a chance that a low-scoring class had a good teacher. Perhaps even higher.

When you place so much value on an isolated piece of high-pressure output by students, you are failing to take into account the broader learning and teaching arcs of students and teachers. Teachers know well that student performance varies widely depending on the year, the month, even the day. And though the Fraser Institute would like to gloss over this, things like parental education levels, household income, and family work schedules do factor into test scores.

Let me put it this way: would you want your yearly bonus to be affected by whether someone else’s children had eaten well/slept enough/taken their meds? Should you forfeit pay because you teach kids who have a cold/whose parents were fighting that morning/who experience test anxiety/who are learning disabled/whose attention span is desperately short?

Actually, I’d say it’s the opposite. Ask any teacher: the years they work hardest, the years that most deeply plumb their reserves of creativity and patience, are the ones where they teach the most children with those high needs. It’s exhausting, overwhelming work. Especially in classes of thirty kids.

When you really think about it, in a society that supposedly values innovation, it’s bizarre that we put so much stock in standardized tests. As we know, the U.S. is obsessed with high-stakes testing, and many districts use teacher incentive pay. This has, indeed, raised test scores in certain areas. It has also encouraged teachers to “teach to the test” – i.e. gear classroom instruction to revolve around what they know of previous tests – which you’re not supposed to do. But if your job is to improve test scores, then… teaching to the test IS doing your job, isn’t it?

It’s no wonder that, as the authors of Freakonomics point out, teacher incentive pay has also resulted in many instances of teachers cheating, in many different ways. Obviously, this does NOT improve student learning – but it does improve test scores.

Here in Ontario, the bigger a deal people make about a school’s high ranking or test scores, the more those teachers feel obliged to make sure their test scores stay high. If they want to please the crowds, they naturally feel compelled to teach to the test.

So. Are we teaching according to the students we have, or the test we have to give them? Because they are not the same thing at all.

Time to recap. What’s the really big issue here? What are standardized tests and teacher incentive pay trying to accomplish?

Improved student achievement. (Reminder: test scores and actual student achievement are two completely different things.)

What changes could help us attain real improvement in student achievement?

If you were to ask the teachers who spend each day with the students, we would have no trouble telling you – because improving student achievement is our daily goal. You would hear: smaller class sizes and more professionals on the ground.

If you’re looking to use money to help kids learn, change the ratios of teachers to students. The bigger the group, the less likely it is that one teacher can give every child the help he or she needs.

If you especially want to help the students with the most difficulties, hire more EAs (Educational Assistants), CYCs (Child Youth Counselors), OTs (Occupational Therapists), Special Ed teachers, and ESL teachers, so that those professionals aren’t spread so thinly that they barely see each child they are supposed to help.

I’m absolutely confident that if I could poll teachers in Ontario, they’d say they would much rather have those changes than incentive pay.

And if your goal is to help every child learn… then standardized tests are a big old waste of money.

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2 thoughts on “Why Teacher Incentive Pay and Standardized Tests Don’t Help Kids

  1. Mama says:

    All this is so true! The EQAO standardized testing appalls and disgusts me. I’m a parent of four kids who were good at tests, so this is not a personal reaction: it’s a reaction based on everything I know about kids, teachers, and education – and that’s quite a lot, given those four kids, a decade or more on our Board’s Special Education Advisory Committee, and numerous instances of teaching myself, from homeschooling to supply teaching to personal tutoring (math and science) and music education. Standardized testing should be scrapped entirely, and some other, reasoned, aware, human method of assessing teachers and rewarding the good ones should be instituted. And the good (rewarded) ones should be asked to share their approaches and techniques with others so that ALL teachers can be good teachers and ALL kids can learn to their best ability. If you want to know what the U.S. system of high-stakes testing and scores competition has done to the U.S. higher education system, read Empire of Illusion by Christopher Hedges – at least the chapter on education. And please, SHARE THIS POST!

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