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Teachers' pay shouldn't depend on students' test scores

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Jodi McLain
Jodi McLain teaches English at a rural school in Wisconsin. In addition to tackling issues facing education, she writes primarily fiction.
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If your child gets bad state test scores, you are a bad parent. If your kids' scores don't improve, we're going to take away your child tax credits. 

Nervous yet?

There are kids in school who stay up as late as they want. There are kids in school who eat mostly sugar. There are kids whose parents work the night shift and are either asleep or gone for most of a child's waking hours. 

Then there are parents who deal drugs out of their house. Parents regularly in jail or prison. Parents who send kids off on the day of state testing with a bad night's sleep, a gas station cappuccino and a Pop Tart, and a warning about what's coming after school. 

Wouldn't you say a child's home affects school success just as much as a teacher in any given class? Of course you would.

But would we really threaten a parent's livelihood because of kids' bad test scores? Of course not. Why? Because a child's test scores are not determined solely by the actions of the parent. 

But, clearly, they're not determined solely by the teacher either.

Sometimes I wish they were. Some test practice and review, and then, according to current proposals tying teacher pay to test scores, I'd get a raise.

But I know there's more at work: Is the child a good paper-and-pencil communicator? Or is he best at speaking? Or charting out an answer? State tests still rely on circles filled in with No. 2 pencils.  

Does the child suffer from test anxiety? It can trigger the body's stress response and shut down his or her very ability to think. Does the child care about the test? I watch kids each year close their test booklets and take naps. Hey, they're not getting paid to take the test.

Is something personal more important right now than a misplaced modifier? Does the child feel unsafe in her test seat, next to the bully who threatened her during lunch break? 

These are very real issues I am describing. If you brush them off as frivolous, then, please, brush off the proposals that teacher pay should be linked to them. 

Teacher accountability is vital. But it's not that easy. Any time we take a leading issue like school quality and try to solve it with such a narrow-sighted provision, we miss the bigger picture.

At least with its Profiles of Learning, Minnesota originally held all parties accountable: Students wouldn't graduate unless they passed the tests. Therefore, teachers, parents and, yes, those who are supposed to prove that they're learning -- the students -- all cared deeply about them. 

Personally, I don't think state tests deserve that kind of reverence. Kids are too complicated to show what they know about something in a half hour on any given day. Think about the significance we place upon such a small slice in time: a child's proof of learning and a professional's standard of living. 

In addition, in the name of standardized tests, music and art education, history and literature are disappearing. Ask your local teachers. Though there are certainly exceptions, most high-performing math students are also in band or choir. The best readers shine as historians or painters. The heart motivates the head. It always has, it always will.

Some argue, "Look, you're getting paid for this." They call schools "businesses" and use the terms "quality control" and "productivity." But teachers exist in the realm of human development. If we're to run like factories, do parents become suppliers? Should teachers reject those materials (a.k.a. children) that come to us already damaged? 

Others argue, "Wait, the hardships that affect test scores have got to be relatively rare. They should average out."

But in small schools, they don't. Even in big schools, how many students aren't great test-takers, aren't getting adequate sleep, or grab a jelly doughnut for breakfast and then crash midway through a test?

Please, hold us teachers accountable. But, please, evaluate us in accurate, meaningful ways. Lawmakers want an easy fix, I know. But education is not easy. It is as varied as the households in America.

We parents cannot always turn our homes into ivory pedestals for perfect learning. Some of us have to work the night shift and sleep during the day. But a parent knows her role goes deeper than one dubious measurement. So does a child's future, and a teacher's impact. 

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Jodi McLain teaches English at a rural school in Wisconsin. In addition to tackling issues facing education, she writes primarily fiction.