The SAT, the ACT and Teaching Excellence: Testing the Limits of Credulity

The SAT, the ACT and Teaching Excellence: Testing the Limits of Credulity

When I was in high school, one of the various standardized tests I took was the Michigan Math Prize test.

The Michigan Math Prize test was designed to encourage students to pursue the study of mathematics in high school and to reward those who excelled in that pursuit. Public recognition was attached to being a high-scoring student. The highest scoring students became eligible for scholarship money as well.

Besides, if you were in the “brainiac” clique, it was cool to say you were a math prize winner.

And I was.

Fast forward to my last semester on the faculty of the University of Tampa. Among the classes I taught was the standard American Government class for political science majors.

Had I continued on the faculty into the 2015/16 academic year, my pay would have been determined, in part, by the score I received on the Michigan Math Prize test in 1974.

. . .

No . . . truly, I’m making that up. Because that would be utter nonsense, wouldn’t it? To use my score on a test that has nothing to do with what I do professionally, a score I earned four decades ago, as a measure of my quality as a university faculty member today.

Measuring teaching effectiveness isn’t easy and nearly always is controversial. It’s also important. The best one can hope for is to develop a system of evaluation and reward that does little if any harm and

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seems tied to improved educational outcomes in some plausible way.

My Michigan Math Prize test score would fail on all counts. Using the test results might harm others who weren’t math whiz kids (which isn’t the same thing as saying they didn’t become brilliant political scientists or biologists or even mathematicians). More obviously, those test results tell us nothing about what happens in my classroom today.

So no one would come up with such a system for evaluating teaching excellence, right?

Well . . . actually, that’s essentially what we will be doing in Florida this next fiscal year.

A little provision slipped into the budget during the recent special session, one that survived the governor’s aggressive use of his line-item veto pen, rewards teachers in Florida with a bonus of up to $10,000 if they meet two criteria: They are rated “highly effective” as teachers (okay, I get that); and, they scored relatively high on the ACT or SAT.

We’re not talking about how the teachers’ students did on these tests. We’re talking about how the teachers did.

The ACT and the SAT are the two commonly used standardized tests high school students take as part of the quest for college admission. I took them in my junior year, when I was 17 . . . when I also took the Math Prize test . . . back in 1974.

For those who don’t know, these tests are designed with the goal of predicting college success. They are not designed to predict or measure teaching effectiveness. Not even close.

What those outside of higher education almost certainly do not know, but is also true, is that the ACT and the SAT actually are relatively poor predictors of precisely what they are designed to predict: college success. In other words, they really aren’t that useful as tests of much of anything we care about . . . though they provide a metric many colleges and universities use, however flawed, to prove how tough their standards are.

So let me get this straight.

We’re going to use the score a 17- or 18-year-old earned while preparing to attend college to determine whether that man or woman, five or 15 or 50 years later, is considered an excellent teacher.

I’m assuming the representative who reportedly slid this novel provision into the budget had something in mind. But for the life of me, I can’t figure out what it is.

Maybe that’s because this is one incentive plan that tests the limits of credulity.

The Florida Legislature will be meeting in special session soon, of necessity, to redraw the congressional district map. That’s a tough task to be sure. But perhaps they could find time to fix this little bit of nonsense too, and not condemn some very effective teachers to a career without bonuses because, back when they were 17, they were more interested in the opposite sex, or high school sports, or their minimum wage job, than they were in how they did on a standardized test.