Editorial: Test scores bad measure for teacher bonuses

Published Dec. 18, 2015

The Florida Legislature is poised to make permanent its misguided plan to reward the state's teachers based on their SAT and ACT scores. The college admissions exams are designed to predict high school students' aptitude for postsecondary studies. They have nothing to do with professional ability and no connection to the job performance of teachers who may have taken those tests as teens decades ago. Lawmakers should reward teachers for professional excellence, but they have chosen the wrong method of evaluation and should regroup.

The Tampa Bay Times reported this month that about 5,200 Florida teachers have qualified for state performance bonuses. Introduced as a late addition to the 2015-16 budget last summer, the Best and Brightest Teacher Scholarship Program set aside $44 million for teachers who earned a "highly effective" rating on their evaluation and had SAT and ACT scores at or above the 80th percentile. First-time teachers without evaluations could earn the bonus if they met the SAT and ACT requirements. Lawmakers voted to give up to 4,402 teachers $10,000 each, but more teachers qualified than expected and the award was reduced to about $8,460 per person. That's good news for teachers who will get a boost in their paychecks this spring. But it's still bad policy that desperately needs an overhaul.

Regrettably, two bills in the Legislature seek to permanently enshrine the one-time scholarship program into state law. The House version puts forth the same standards created by lawmakers in this year's budget. The Senate version, sponsored by Sen. John Legg, R-Trinity, chairman of the Senate Education Committee, would give bonuses to teachers who have SAT and ACT scores in the top 40 percent. Which bill addresses the root of the problem? Answer: C. Neither.

Attracting and retaining the most qualified and effective teachers is a tremendous challenge as professions with higher pay and often better working conditions beckon top students. Providing incentives to remain in the classroom is a worthy idea, but the Legislature has fumbled this effort from the start. Lawmakers shouldn't have shoehorned the money for this program into the state's budget without adequately vetting the idea. Had they allowed for discussion of the proposal, they might have reached the logical conclusion that using old high school-era test scores is no way to measure current ability. Florida's current policy also advances a disturbing double standard. It relies on standardized test scores at time when there is a huge outcry from educators, parents and the Legislature itself to reduce the number of tests students are required to take.

Public education is chronically underfunded. Florida should pay teachers more and reward those with exceptional skills. But there is too little money to waste millions on programs that have no real value. Truly excellent educators deserve better than that.