New teacher pay law stifles student learning

By Cal Colgan |

Opinion G logoClass is about to begin. Today’s lesson starts with a simple question: How effective are state tests at determining student performances?

Ah, good. You realize this is a loaded question. After all, the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test is one of the most controversial standardized tests in the Sunshine State’s public schools. Since its passage in 1996, the FCAT has garnered praise from lawmakers and harsh criticism from teachers and their advocates.

The politicians claim the FCAT, which bases students’ performance on how well they test on course information at their grade level, provides an accurate measure of the material kids should have learned. The teachers retort that centering an entire curriculum on a test means they are teaching the test, and not their respective subjects.

But now, there’s more at stake than students being held back for not testing well. The teachers are the new victims of this experiment.

On March 24, Gov. Rick Scott signed into law the Student Success Act, which ties teacher pay to test scores. The law mandates that starting in the fall, all teachers will be evaluated on how well their students score on standardized tests like the FCAT. Although teachers who were hired before July 1 can keep their non-merit pay contracts, they can be fired for having more than one bad evaluation.

Scores of red-clad teachers have taken their course plans and pencils to the streets, protesting against this legislation that former Gov. Charlie Crist struck down last year. Even here in St. Augustine, dozens of St. Johns County public school teachers gathered in the Plaza de la Constitucion last month to voice their opposition to tying their life’s work to a test.

Despite the standardized tests apologists who in their studies hail exams like the FCAT as accurate representations of student performance, the fact remains that many kids are just not good test-takers. Students might be able to write a well-researched argumentative essay on ancient Greek political thought, but when it comes to an exam on Plato, they draw a blank.

Even students who test well might still be held back, simply because of their background. In previous years, public schools that received poor FCAT scores would not receive as many resources as those who made high marks. When the schools in these typically poor communities are so under-funded that they can’t guarantee their students up-to-date textbooks, firing the few teachers who strive to help those kids would only make the students’ lack of education more pitiful.

By tying teacher pay to something that doesn’t adequately measure student knowledge, Scott and the state legislature aren’t reforming education. They’re stifling it.

Class dismissed.

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