Does using high-stakes tests to fire teachers improve student outcomes?

February 08, 2016

By Jill Barshay

Can a teacher’s worth be measured by how much his students’ test scores improve? And should teachers who don’t move that needle very much be fired? These are two of the most controversial questions in education.

Some school districts have plunged ahead with “yes” answers to both. Whether that strategy — which leads to high teacher turnover — has improved student learning has yet to be fully analyzed. But a first stab at it has just been released by a quartet of researchers from the University of Virginia and Stanford University.

First, some background. It might seem pretty obvious that firing ineffective teachers and replacing them with better ones would be good for students. But identifying which teachers are ineffective is tricky. And it’s even trickier to dismiss unionized employees. Whether to pursue a dismissal has often been left up to the whims and energy of school principals. That’s why some policymakers came up with the idea of finding objective measures, and then adopting new firing policies.

Those who oppose measuring a teacher’s worth by test scores argue that the multiple-choice tests don’t capture a lot of what students are learning, and can underestimate great teaching. Even those who agree that the tests are somewhat good at identifying the worst teachers find other problems. For example, some teachers react by dumping creative lessons and teaching only topics that are on the standardized test.