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As ratings near, a teacher reiterates what test scores don’t say

In October 2010, when the city first said it would fulfill a Freedom of Information Law request and release individual teachers’ ratings to news organizations, teachers started buzzing about what the scores would mean — and what they wouldn’t.

One of them was Stephen Lazar, a high school teacher, who listed 18 elements of teaching and learning in his classroom that his students’ state tests didn’t take into account. The list appeared in the GothamSchools Community section at the time.

This week, Lazar re-posted the piece on his personal blog, Outside the Cave, and added a note expressing astonishment that news organizations would be going ahead with publishing the scores alongside teachers’ names. (Lazar is part of an informal advisory group for GothamSchools but was not consulted on our decision not to publish individual teachers’ ratings.)

Lazar was discussing his students’ exam scores and not the kind of “value-added” measure contained in the Teacher Data Reports that tries to show students’ growth compared to their expected growth. Also, Lazar’s students took Regents exams, not the grades 3-8 state tests factored into the ratings being released today. Still, his list provides a useful reminder about the limitations of using test scores as a single measure of teacher quality on a day when New Yorkers are likely to be tempted to do just that.

Here’s an excerpt:

  • [Test scores] don’t tell you that that I spent six weeks in the middle of the year teaching my students how to do college-level research. I estimate this costs my students an average of 5-10 points on the Regents exam.
  • They don’t tell you that when you ask my students who are now in college why they are succeeding when most of their urban public school peers are dropping out, they name that research project as one of their top three reasons nearly every time.
  • They don’t tell you which of my students had a home and a healthy meal the night before the test.
  • They don’t tell you that 20 percent of our seniors come to me every year for letters of recommendation because they feel they did their best work in my class.

Read Lazar’s entire list from 2010, then check out his 2012 update. And feel free to suggest additional entries in the comments section.