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Student Performance & Teacher Pay

Kerri Milyko, Ph.D. BCBA

May 2010

In my February article, I mentioned how Precision Teaching Learning Center (PTLC) continually measure global performance through frequent assessments that are closely linked to the behavior of interest.  This is one of the key features that distinguish PTLC not only from traditional education, but from other learning centers as well.  It seems rather relevant to address assessments again after Senate Bill 6 was just vetoed by Gov. Charlie Crist.

Briefly, SB 6 was an attempt to link teacher’s pay to student performance.  Although this is seemingly an ideal solution to increase teacher accountability and, as a result, increase student performance, the bill had some significant limitations.  One of these problematic features was the reliance on results from standardized tests, such as the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test (FCAT).  To fully understand why basing teacher’s pay on this assessment is so hazardous, one must know the limitations of the assessment itself.

Standardized testing occurs rarely: once a year.  So many factors rely on the student performing well for that single snapshot of performance.  There are environmental factors such as proper nutrition and a proper night’s rest.  (I actually know a lot of students who do not eat in the morning and as a result, their performance suffers.  When they come to see me, I strongly encourage them to eat a banana or some sort of healthy snack.)  Other environmental factors are found at school prior to and during the test.  The student could have just had a fight with their friend on the way to school; the student next to him/her, while taking the test, is annoyingly tapping his/her foot, and the room may be freezing.  I remember, in high school, I found out my boyfriend cheated on me the day of the FCAT.  I guarantee that I did not do well on that test!  These are very distracting environmental factors that could result to poor performance.  Other variables that I will not elaborate due to lack of space include the student’s health and motivation to perform well on the test. Infrequent testing inevitably allows for flawed results because of such variables.

Administering the assessment more frequently (weekly, monthly) allow teachers to sort out these environmental variables that may result in results that are not representative of the student’s ability.  Specifically, teachers would see a trend in the student’s scores.  Ideally, these scores would be increasing.  For example, Sally scores 60%, 70%, 75%, and 82% on her most frequent “assessments” (the FCAT uses different developmental scores.  For simplicity of the example, I will use percentages).  There is a noticeable trend in her scores.  However, if instead of Sally’s 75%, there was a 45%, followed by the 82%, it is safe to assume that some environmental factors were involved in Sally’s low score of 45%.  The 45% is not representative of her ability.  It would be unfortunate if Sally only performed this assessment once and received a 45% because of environmental factors.

However, the FCAT is a lengthy test.  It takes hours to administer, which is often spread across a couple of days.  Although ideally assessments are better administered frequently, it is understandable why it is administered so infrequently.  Nevertheless, assuming that all the previously described environmental factors are optimal and “the planets are aligned”, the test is still a marathon.  Endurance comes into play in this type of situation.  The student may perform well during the beginning of the test.  However, after 30 min, 1 hr, 3 hr, the student’s performance begins to wane by sheer exhaustion in addition to a quickly evaporating motivation.  Educators attempt to eliminate this endurance problem by testing for a few hours each day across a couple of days.  However, as readers of The Child Knows Best, you know that each learner is an individual and unique.  What might be short to one student may seem like an eternity to another.

In a previous article, I wrote about Curriculum Based Assessments (CBA) that are brief (no more than 5 min per subject) and are able to be administered weekly.  This assessment targets the same areas as a larger standardized test, but alleviates the previously described limitations.  I offer the CBA as a replacement to assess student performance.  If the education system is fearful to rid itself of the beast of a traditional standardized test, they can still use it in addition to a CBA. 

Now that just a few problems with standardized testing have been addressed, it is clear to see why teachers’ salaries should not be based upon this measure.  Assume Sally has a stellar teacher, but the environmental factors and health factors of Sally resulted in her 45% (when her ability was more of a 75%).  It would be awful for Sally’s teacher’s salary to be determined by that low score among other potentially low scores because one boy kept tapping his foot and distracting the 10 students around him.  It would be unfortunate for Sally’s teacher’s salary to be based upon Sally not getting a good night’s rest because her parents kept her up with their screaming over issues on their upcoming divorce.  It would be horrible to base Sally’s teacher’s salary upon Sally having a rough day with her allergies or groggy-state-inducing cold medicine.

Performance-based or merit-based pay is ideal.  Research shows that creating an environment with performance-based pay produces optimal employees with respect to their proficiency and attitudes.  After contacting performance-based pay situation, employees prefer to remain receiving performance-based pay.  However, making the pay contingent upon such a faulty measure like the FCAT opens up a world of issues, much like Pandora’s box.  This is a change that we can believe in; however, this change needs to be a bit more solid before it is effectively implemented.  Gov. Crist, you need a behavior analyst on your committee - I am available.