Linking student standardized test scores to individual teachers would enable principals, teachers and perhaps parents to know more precisely the contributions that teachers make to individual students’ learning.

This question is often framed as one of fairness. For example, is it really fair to teachers to measure their performance by their students’ scores on standardized tests? Will students be unfairly shortchanged by having teachers teaching to the test? If we knew that some teachers were more effective than others, would it be fair to pay them all the same?

If we knew that poorer schools routinely had less effective teachers than wealthier schools, would it be fair to poor students to let that inequity persist? Is it fair to students and teachers for principals to make teacher retention decisions on less precise information when more precise information is available?

In approaching these questions, I try to remember the lessons learned as a private school principal — primarily that sometimes there are trade-offs inherent in making tough decisions to put students first.

FAIRNESS IN MEASURING TEACHERS

Many will argue that teachers cannot be held responsible for their students’ academic performance because there are too many factors beyond a teacher’s control. They contend that the only way to give students a chance at success is to address the social inequities associated with poverty that interfere with their ability to learn. They also argue that schools are underfunded and overcrowded, so it is not fair to hold teachers accountable.

The alternate viewpoint is that we have not yet maximized the learning potential for all students, and improving the available educational inputs would go a long way to helping students achieve.

Of the factors that schools can control, teachers make the most difference for student success; therefore, it is best for schools to focus on improving teacher quality. The most objective measure of teacher quality is to evaluate the performance of a teacher in the classroom as measured by student performance on standardized tests. To do so, it is essential to link individual students to their teachers.

To be fair to teachers, school administrators must employ a statistical technique, called value-added measurement. These techniques control for, or tease out, the factors that contribute to a student’s learning that are unrelated to a teacher’s skill or effort. It is true that there are some trade-offs in choosing the particular statistical controls and that test scores are not perfect, but by controlling for prior academic performance, statisticians can get a relatively accurate measure of teacher quality by looking at student achievement gains.

As a beginning teacher, I thought my job was to stand up in front of students and present the material in the best way I could. Learning was, however, ultimately up to them. Certainly, some students are more reluctant learners than others, but I came to realize that a teacher’s job is not simply about delivering material. High-quality teachers also communicate a love of their subject and of learning, and they form relationships with their students that help to motivate their students to learn and to perform.

TEACHING TO THE TEST

Some argue that teaching to the test is an inevitable negative outcome of focusing so much attention on standardized tests. They assert that it is unfair to students for teachers to spend an inordinate amount of time in standardized test preparation. If teachers could substitute test preparation gimmicks for real learning and still have their students succeed, the critics would be right — students would be the losers. This reasoning breaks down when we examine what a good test measures.

Consider a test of reading comprehension. Teachers may prepare their students by working on sample problems. Teachers may spend time instructing students on how to identify a passage’s main idea. They may also show them how to use context clues to figure out unknown words. Further, teachers may show students how to identify supporting evidence or conclusion sentences. These critical reading skills are precisely what teachers should be teaching anyway; in this light, teaching to the test may not be such a bad thing after all.

Another criticism of teaching to the test is that other untested subjects do not receive as much attention. Rather than spending extra time at recess or in music or art, students practice for reading, math, science or social studies tests. Again, is this a bad thing? Students need a balanced curriculum, but the best thing we can do is to ensure that they are developing the cognitive abilities and skills that will prepare them for success in the workforce or higher education.

Teacher pay, teacher quality distribution, and teacher hiring and retention decisions could all be made more fairly with the information that can be gained through linking student standardized test scores to individual teachers.

Marc Holley is a doctoral academy fellow in public policy at the University of Arkansas. His interest in education reform is informed by six years of experience as a private school administrator and teacher.