Little Eddie's Wet Blanket: What Rise in Teacher ACT-SAT Scores Tells Us

Earlier this week, we talked about a National Council on Teacher Quality report on teacher pension systems. Today, we get to talk about an article from the Hechinger Report regarding the “quality” of teachers entering the teaching force as measured by scores on the SAT and ACT. The article highlights some new research that supposedly refutes a 2010 McKinsey and Company report. The report argued that pulling in teachers with higher scores could help the U.S. achieve the same results as countries like Finland.

The good news is that new research apparently (some of it has not been officially published) shows new teachers’ college entrance exam scores have risen. Much larger numbers of teachers are coming from the top third of the SAT score distribution. And of course, this is fantastic. But the better news is that this means we can now safely say that we have  a great deal more confidence in teachers than TV reporters. The bad news is, so what?

Sadly, Eddie has to be the wet blanket today by pointing out that aside from providing an admittedly well-deserved feel-good piece for teachers (who are frequently and wrongly attacked for their profession) and poking at the 2010 Mckinsey report, the article doesn’t accomplish much. Yeah, that’s a little cranky of me. But as the article’s last paragraph points out, the increase in teacher “quality” hasn’t done much to improve outcomes for kids overall.

But before we get to that, though, let’s talk about why teachers’ ACT and SAT scores could be on the rise. The article offers several hypotheses, three of which I think are the most pertinent and interesting.

The first hypothesis is that the increase in higher scorers entering teaching is that schools and districts have gotten more selective in who they hire. But this would make sense only if we had good reason to believe that test scores are considered in the hiring process or if that small increase substantively affected the quality of post-secondary schools the candidates attended, which could affect hiring decisions. I don’t see any evidence of either. And even if the latter were true, the lack of outcome improvement highlighted in the argument would be yet another indictment of post-secondary education schools.

The second big hypothesis is that teacher licensure systems have had the effect of driving up ACT and SAT scores. But if this true, and licensure requirements have driven up teacher “quality” as measured by college entrance exams without generating real improvements in academic achievement, isn’t that just another knock against the idea of formalized licensure? It may be improving some things, but it isn’t improving what we need it to.

Finally, we have this statement: “Still, rising test scores are a sign that the teaching profession is becoming more desirable to young adults.” That could be. And if this is the case, I think it’s fantastic. I’d love nothing more than to see new waves of young, talented teachers enter the profession for the right reason: Helping the next generation of kids reach excellence.

Unfortunately, the article does not acknowledge that some of changes may be due to the fact that the rest of the economy is squeezing high scorers out of severely limited labor markets. They could also be due to another external factor, or to a combination of different factors. So while I’d love to talk about a sea change in teacher recruitment patterns, I’m not fully convinced it will last.

More distressingly, even if new, high-scoring teachers are happier to join the teaching force, that enthusiasm doesn’t seem to last long according to a recent Gallup survey on teacher engagement. We must do more to ensure that great teachers are rewarded for their results and incentivized to stay (and to stay engaged) in the profession.

So sadly, this article doesn’t do much for me. Teachers still deserve our respect, just as they always have—regardless of which third of a distribution their college entrance exam scores fall within. But teachers still need to be evaluated. Good teachers still matter, and bad teachers still hurt. The only things we now know for (almost) certain is that ACT/SAT scores are not good proxies for teacher quality, and that these scores cannot adequately predict systemic increases in academic achievement. I may only be five years old, but I could have told you that.

Until next time!