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Test-score obsession is bad for teachers and students

Linking teachers' pay to test scores will result in an educator exodus from challenged schools to high-achieving ones



As if Georgia leaders didn't learn enough of a lesson from the recent Atlanta Public Schools scandal — the one in which it's been alleged that teachers, under extreme pressure and perhaps in an organized fashion, falsified student test scores — the state is now close to finalizing a plan to link teachers' pay to how well their students do on standardized tests.

If students underperform, their teacher would lose his or her certification.

The premise of Georgia's new teacher evaluation system (which will be rolled out over the next five years and automatically apply to new teachers; existing ones can opt in) is that it would help keep and attract top-performing teachers. In fact, it probably would keep and attract a good number of top performers — but only at top-performing schools.

This brave new plan earned the state a $400 million federal Race to the Top grant. The plan as proposed would all but ensure just that — a race among teachers to the top schools, and a race that would leave the more challenged, cash-strapped, inner-city schools far, far behind.

Here's the tricky part: How well a student performs on a test doesn't depend solely on the quality of a given teacher's instruction. Other factors include the test itself and the student's ability to test — which, in turn, is affected by his or her home environment and upbringing. How will Georgia get decent teachers to work in low-performing schools if they'll make more money and enjoy better job security if they teach the "good test-takers" somewhere else? This new plan seems likely to widen the achievement gap rather than shrink it.

Any smart and conscientious teacher would welcome a rating system that gives more thoughtful evaluations and opportunities for improvement than the current, highly flawed system. Under the current system, less than 1 percent of teachers statewide received "unsatisfactory" rankings. A change is definitely in order.

But the new evaluation system has some major kinks to work out before it starts screwing with teachers' pay schedules and revoking their certification. State officials should pay as much attention to the realities teachers face as it has to its successful $400 million grant application. It's not too late to take into account the plight of teachers and their students, and add much-needed modifications to the new evaluation system.

In many instances — especially in inner-city schools — test scores aren't adequate tools for measuring a teacher's classroom effectiveness. (For a crash course in the need for more flexibility in the urban classroom, see "The Wire," season 4.)

In the end, it's not the classroom environment or even the teacher that is so important to the student's education, but what happens before they get to school each day. But that's another editorial.

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