Merit pay could hurt lower-income schools

Principal worries new law will negatively affect his school, students

Lauren Rowe interviews a 9th grader at Ocoee High School about standardized testing.
Lauren Rowe interviews a 9th grader at Ocoee High School about standardized testing.

OCOEE, Fla. – John Parmenter was brought to Ocoee High School to help raise scores on standardized math tests.

As the school's math specialist his job is to not only look at data and see where learning gains need to be improved, he also has to spend a great deal of time privately coaching students.

The students he gets to know on that one to one level often times come from lower socioeconomic backgrounds. 

In Parmenter's 35 years spent teaching, he said these are the kids that are consistently going to struggle with standardized testing.

"They don't have that high-end score, but it doesn't mean they haven't learned more," Parementer said.

That is a concern because now his pay and the pay of teachers across the state of Florida is tied to how students score on standardized tests.

The Student Success Act, or SB 736, places half of a teacher's entire assessment for the year on learning gains measured through tests. The other half will come from classroom evaluations.

The teacher's overall rating will determine whether or not the teacher is eligible for a raise and will allow administrators to more easily remove ineffective teachers from the classroom.

Principal Bill Floyd at Ocoee High School is worried the law is unfair to teachers at lower-income schools like his.

"You are kind of slapping them for taking on one of the most difficult roles out there," said Floyd.

According to Florida Department of Education data, students who are on the state's free and reduced lunch programs at several Orange County schools have a lower passing percentage rate on the FCATS.

At Ocoee High School, 68 percent of students not on free and reduced lunch passed the 10th grade FCAT reading while only 41 percent of the students on the program did so.

"The difficulty with that is that some students are naturally because of their life circumstance are going to do much better on a test than other students," said Floyd.

He said he fears the law will discourage the best teachers from wanting to take jobs at lower-socio economic schools.

In fact, Floyd claimed he has had trouble filling teaching positions and has heard similar complaints from colleagues at other schools.

"I don't know if I can chalk it up to this particular item but its mighty curious how we can't get people in the classroom now,"  said Floyd.

Figures obtained from Orange County Public Schools do not show a lack in applicants for teaching jobs, but the data was not able to be broken down by specific schools.

The solution is not to throw the tests out, the solution is to help them in a very compassionate way to learn how to take a test.

Senator David Simmons, R-Maitland, is the chairman of education subcommittee that greenlighted the law.

He disputed concerns about the fairness towards teachers at poorer schools come from a fundamental misunderstanding of the law.

"It is gains.  If all of the children are in fact below average all it means is we are testing their gains from below average to hopefully even average," said Simmons.

Floyd and Parmenter said those gains don't matter when it only takes a few students to bring down an entire test rating.

Floyd claims Ocoee High missed the mark for a better rating last year due to the poor performance by just six students.