When Test Scores Grade Teachers

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Are student test scores a fair way to judge a teacher's effectiveness — and to decide their pay? That's the controversial question at the heart of Florida Governor Jeb Bush's ambitious education reform package that the state legislature will be debating over the next several weeks.

When the President's brother swept into office in 1998, the first thing he did was to radically change they way Florida's youngest students were taught by ending social promotion and demanding high-stakes achievement tests. He also eventually got a general merit pay system passed, but its implementation has long been stymied by bureacratic snafus, teacher opposition and a lack of funding. So with only nine months left in his term, the popular governor must now convince state lawmakers of a sweeping vision that includes the nation's first statewide program linking teacher pay directly with students' test performance — as well as the first statewide requirement for high school students to declare majors.

Launched as an evaluation tool in 1998, the Florida Comprehensive Achievement Test, or FCAT, is already being used to grade schools and distribute funds. Now critics like the state's biggest teachers union argue the test is about to be used for another task for which it was never designed. Can test scores accurately rank the physical education teacher whose encouragement prompts a student to improve math scores or the art teacher whose class is the only reason a 17-year-old stays in school, those same critics ask. How, in short, do you financially apportion the contributions of everyone from special education teachers and speech pathologists to guidance counselors and co-teachers? And how do you make sure that teachers in generally low-performing districts aren't always viewed as failures?

"If you want to encourage teachers, to encourage new teachers to come here and work, then you are going have to realize that we are different from business people," said Karen Futornick, a teacher from Sarasota County.

Republican leaders steering the debate insist that the FCAT will not be the sole determining factor, and they are quick to add that the issue is not whether Florida teachers are going to be paid based on performance, but how. In their mind, the continuing emergence of economic powerhouses such as India and China makes nothing short of a radical transformation of the education system — in all its many facets — necessary for U.S. students to compete. But if critics are right and this particular incentive system turns off many potential teachers or inhibits teamwork, it could end up doing as much damage as good.