Florida teachers can get bonuses for tests scores — but their own old ones, not students'

Miami State Representative Erik Fresen.
Miami State Representative Erik Fresen.

After 30 years in the classroom, Angela Gonzalez doesn’t even remember whether she took the SAT or ACT to get into college.

The understandable lapse in memory may cost the South Pointe Elementary teacher a bonus.

Florida has set aside more than $44 million to give teachers a pay bump based in part on their own college entrance exams — never mind that most teachers took the test years ago, and the testing companies themselves say they haven’t studied whether high college-entrance exam scores correlate to better classroom teachers.

Though many applaud any attempt to boost teacher pay, the measure has raised eyebrows.

“Just think about it: We’re going to give a bonus to a physical education teacher based on his SAT math scores a decade ago,” said Robert Schaeffer, public education director for FairTest. “People are fed up with Tallahassee’s fixation on linking test scores to everything in education, even when there’s absolutely no evidence for it.”

The measure was slipped into the budget by Rep. Erik Fresen, R-Miami, who said he wants to recruit the smartest students to become teachers by boosting their potential starting salary while also retaining the brightest already in the field.

The program is called Florida's Best and Brightest Teacher Scholarship, and it offers up to $10,000 to teachers who scored in the 80th percentile on the ACT or SAT. Teachers also have to earn a “highly effective” ranking on evaluations, unless they’re a first-year educator who hasn’t been evaluated yet — in which case, only the test score requirement applies.

Fresen stressed that the bonus couples test scores and evaluations.

“You can’t just hit in the 80th percentile on the SAT and be a nightmare in the classroom,” he said.

The total bonus per teacher will be prorated based on the number of those who qualify. Fresen said the state projects up to 4,400 teachers will be eligible.

In statements to the Miami Herald, the makers of the ACT and the SAT said they haven’t studied whether their tests predict who will make good teachers.

“Certainly we’re concerned when parties signal that they want to use ACT scores for reasons that we consider not appropriate,” said Wayne Camara, senior vice president for research at ACT. “We would urge the organization to consider more appropriate measures for their intended purpose.”

Fresen said plenty of research shows that teachers with high aptitudes are the most effective, but they’re also more likely to leave for higher-paying professions.

“You want to have as smart of a person in a classroom as you can, right?” he asked. “I do think it’s a good policy. I do think it will bear fruit. I’m fairly confident that it will move the dial up.”

Meanwhile, pay incentives for National Board Certified teachers have been slashed — even though research has shown that educators with the certification are more effective. Gonzalez, the South Pointe teacher, said she let her own certification expire because it wasn’t financially advantageous.

She called the latest push to pay teachers based on test scores another unfair attempt to implement merit pay, and said the money would be better spent on services for students.

“The Legislature is not even listening to teachers, who are in the trenches,” she said.

Still, teachers are expected to go after their share of the money. Miami-Dade County Public Schools spokesman John Schuster said the district is waiting for guidance from the Florida Department of Education about how to handle the mandate.

Teachers have until October to submit their scores to their district. The bonuses should be paid out by April, according to the budget item.

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