Community Forum: Test scores don’t tell full story

A recent New York Times article by Annie Lowry was titled “Big Study Links Good Teachers to Lasting Gain.” The article was about how teachers who raise students test scores in elementary and middle school have a lasting impact on those students’ lives in the form of raising their income, increasing their likelihood of attending college and lowering teen pregnancy rates.
The article, and the study it cites, presents a familiar trope in our current political discussion about teaching and learning and how to quantify them. The data used in the study by economists at Harvard and Columbia were based on student test scores. The study and the discussions that inevitably follow in the political and education communities operate on one basic assumption: that test scores measure learning. Test scores do measure the information a student can recall at a given time, but they don’t measure either learning or teaching. The fallacy of this assumption lies in the omission of what test scores do not, and cannot measure. A leap in logic is being made by those who associate students’ test scores with the quality of instruction those students received.  I don’t suppose it is too much of a revelation to anyone that good teachers make a difference in young people’s lives. The problem with this conclusion, however, is that there is very little consensus on what makes a teacher good.
Teaching is not merely an informational exchange. Teaching is also an energetic exchange. It is a human exchange. Good teaching involves so much more than just information. Students who succeed are the students who have been shown that they are valuable, that they are intelligent and that they are powerful. The students who are taught to respect themselves and how to be personally responsible for their words and their actions will be the students who are the most able to get the information they need to be successful. By success I don’t mean the narrow parameters looked at in the study mentioned in The New York Times — income, education and teen pregnancy rates — rather, they will be students who know themselves and are able to choose for themselves what they want to be, to engage with life on their own terms. 
The danger of the test score as the driver of political and economic discourse in education is that there is a denial of what it is that is actually transpiring between teachers and students. The results can be seen and felt. The outcomes can be observed. Anyone who has had a good teacher knows this. Good teachers do make a difference. The test scores, however, reveal only that a good teacher was present, that good teaching and learning took place. They do not show what transpired in those students’ lives and minds, only that the results were positive. Test scores, being measures of a student’s ability to regurgitate information, should not, therefore, become the basis to reward or reform teaching practices or school policies, because there is no causal link that can be derived from those scores that shows what good teaching or good policy is.
The public school system in our country is in dire need of reform. Our children need more than is being offered to them. We, as a society, need to recognize what we value, and how we teach those values to our kids. We need to honor those people who we charge to impart these values, and value them in return. When teachers are honored and respected in our society; when they are rewarded for their efforts and energy; when they are valued for their expertise and for practicing their craft, test scores will go up, students will thrive, and our society as a whole will be happier, healthier and more competitive globally. To do this we must first realize what teaching actually is, and not give in to the false allure of the test score as our measure of good teaching. 
Lonny Edwards is director of the Gailer School in Middlebury.

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