Southold: Test scores should not be used to evaluate teacher performance

BETH YOUNG PHOTO | Southold School District superintendent David Gamberg spoke about standardized test scores at last week's Board of Education meeting.

All across the country, states are instituting new plans to tie teacher evaluations to test scores in a competition for federal funds known as Race to the Top.

New York is no exception, and this year the State Education Department is developing new criteria to use student test scores to evaluate teacher performance in order to receive nearly $700 million in Race to the Top funds.

That doesn’t sit well with administrators and some School Board members in the Southold School District, who wonder how the school will be able to measure teacher success in subjective classes, such as art and music.

The board’s discussion began after Southold superintendent David Gamberg gave a presentation on the district’s Regents test scores at a work session Dec. 7.

“Any look at any exam needs to be looked at in its full context,” Mr. Gamberg said before he presented the test scores. He added that he thinks it is important that the district “make schoolwork connected and meaningful.”

The test results, measuring Regents passing and mastery levels from the 2008-09 school year through the 2010-11 school year, show that students in the district consistently have high passing and mastery rates on foreign language, English and social studies tests. Southold students have a high passing rate but consistently lower mastery rates, which they define as scores above 85, in math and advanced science classes like physics and chemistry.

Mr. Gamberg said that while the district’s scores were quite consistent from year to year, the small population of students in Southold can cause scores to fluctuate more widely than in a larger population. He quoted Albert Einstein in a caveat to his presentation.

“Not everything that counts can be measured, and not everything that can be measured counts,” he said. “Subjective areas inspire kids to be better citizens.”

School Board Vice President Judi Fouchet pointed out a recent much-circulated Washington Post column by a successful School Board member who recently took the 10th grade standardized tests offered in his state and performed horribly. That School Board member wondered if he would have been so successful in life if he’d received similar scores when he was in 10th grade.

“I haven’t seen a Regents exam in years,” said Ms. Fouchet.

The new state Annual Professional Performance Review, which went into effect in September, bases 20 percent of teacher and principal performance scores on “student growth on state assessments or other comparable measures” and 20 percent on other locally selected tests.

There has been widespread opposition to the new standards from educators, and hundreds of Long Island principals have signed onto a position paper opposing the measure, including Southold High School principal William Galati, Southold Elementary School principal Ellen O’Neill, Mattituck High School principal Shawn Petretti, Riverhead Middle School principal Andrea Pekar, Roanoke Avenue principal Thomas Payton and Phillips Avenue principal Debra Rodgers.

The paper argues, among other points, that 85 to 90 percent of statistical variations in student test scores are based on non-classroom teacher variables, and the new method will force teachers to devote more classroom time to teaching to the test, leaving little room for enrichment activities in arts, music, civics and other non-tested areas.

Mr. Gamberg said that in a world where adults can get answers to questions on standardized tests instantly on their cell phones, “if we’re not asking the right questions on an exam, it’s a bad exam. You need to be able to ask the question that gets kids to think.”

“We’ve been saying, ‘We’ll deal with this later,’ but later is arriving,” Mr. Gamberg said. “It’s a very real dilemma.”

Members of the Southold School Board and administration, along with six other local districts, will meet in Southold this Friday with Roger Tilles of the state Board of Regents, in the hopes of addressing some of these concerns, as well as the two percent property tax levy cap.

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