08/25/2010 01:26 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Why the Controversy Over High-Stakes Testing and Teacher Evals Matters

Yesterday, California's application for federal Race to the Top school funding was denied for a second time, and the LA Times reported that US Secretary of Education Arne Duncan will repeatedly single out LA Unified in his speech today. This is likely to heat up the already heated controversy around the LA Times' threatened publication of a value-added analysis linking individual teacher performance to their students' standardized test scores. Why does this matter?

Nobody thinks that teacher evaluation should be based entirely on standard test results.
The LA Times, the LAUSD, the teachers union, the Secretary of Education, and the National Academy of Sciences all agree on one thing - that judging teachers based on their students' standardized test scores alone is not a complete measure of teacher performance.

Still, federal funds are tied to whether schools link teachers performance to their students' standardized test scores. In the text of his speech today Arne Duncan tied California's failure to secure $700 million in federal Race to the Top funding in part to the fact that LAUSD does not use standardized test scores as a factor in teacher review and evaluation.

And, the value-added method used to analyze the teacher data is controversial.
There are legitimate questions as to whether the value-added method used to analyze teacher data is a fair measure of how effective individual teachers are in preparing their students for standardized tests. A thorough discussion of this is posted on the NEA website and in John Rogers' recent piece on HuffPost.

Good reporting jumpstarted an important union negotiation
. The LAUSD had years of raw data that could link teachers to their students' standardized test scores but they never evaluated it: Arguably, because they were afraid of the teachers union. Now with the LA Times analysis of that data, and threatened publication of the results, the teachers union agreed to reopen contract negotiations putting the use of standardized test scores as a factor in teacher evaluation back on the table.

Here's the rub, the LA Times plans to publish 6,000 elementary teacher rankings by name. An assessment of the pros and cons of value-added analysis is complicated and reasonable people disagree on how it should be used to assess teacher performance. And yet, it is looking more and more likely that the names of 6,000 Los Angeles elementary school teachers and their rankings will be published on a spectrum from least effective to most effective. The extent of the personal and professional injury that publication could cause these elementary school teachers is impossible to predict, but it's fair to say that publication would publicly embarrass some teachers. It would also likely spur parents into lobbying for one teacher over another based on a performance evaluation that is acknowledged by everyone to be limited and incomplete at best.