ORLANDO, Fla. — Heather Wright often meets people who are confused about exactly what she does for a living.
That’s not surprising. After all, how many psychometricians have you ever met?
Wright, an energetic former English teacher, is a leader in a little-known realm of education. Psychometrics is the intricate science behind measuring what people know.
Experts such as Wright work closely with teachers to help devise new standardized tests in niche subjects such as web design, creative writing and psychology. It’s an incredibly complex process that school districts are diving into as they rush to fulfill an unfunded state mandate tied to the merit-pay plan for teachers.
The merit-pay rule calls for half of a teacher’s evaluation to be based on students’ standardized-test scores. Districts have used mostly FCAT scores for that purpose, even for teachers who don’t teach FCAT-related subjects.
Because of the rule, districts are banding together and scrambling to create dozens of assessments to help grade teachers in subjects where no standardized test exists.
“You want to be evaluated on what you taught — not on whole school scores or on assessments that measure what students learned maybe a year or two before they were in your classroom,” said Wright, a psychometrician with the Lake County school district.
Wright is leading a group of teachers and other psychometricians who will be creating dozens of tests.
But the process isn’t easy — or cheap. Wright estimates the project will produce about 82 tests and cost as much as $603,000, which is paid for on the school district’s dime. The costs are in addition to the $52 million the state is already spending on plans for testing in subjects beyond the FCAT and end-of-course exams.
The state Department of Education is spending $20 million of federal Race to the Top money to pay for four districts to make tests for subjects such as art, music or physical education. The state also recently awarded Pearson, a national testing company, a $32 million contract to develop a test bank and software program that districts can use.
“Either way, whether you’re developing it yourself or buying it from another district, there is a considerable price tag,” said Ruth Melton, legislative director for the Florida School Boards Association.
The group recently adopted a resolution that calls for the state to fully fund its accountability system and criticizes the state’s “over-reliance” on “high-stakes” testing.
But teachers familiar with the process say being involved in test-making is helping them understand their subjects better and they’re happy to have a hand in making the tests that will eventually be a part of their personal rating.
“It’s giving teachers the opportunity to be a significant part of the assessments that are being created,” said Angel Teron, a teacher who is helping make rules for a creative-writing test. “And it’s not something that’s being delivered telling them, ‘This is what you have to teach.’”
Others hope it can help teachers be more consistent from school to school, but critics say it’s just another flawed way of trying to measure teacher performance.
“They are being forced to create yet another yardstick to measure adults,” said Kathleen Oropeza, who heads the advocacy group Fund Education Now. “Our children are being used as test-taking minions to prove that adults are doing their job.”
Educators agree that the task of creating assessments for every subject a district offers by 2014 is daunting. Districts can have up to 1,000 courses that don’t currently have standardized tests, but some are hopeful these new assessments will help teachers diagnose students’ problems before it’s too late.
“The hope is that teachers and students will use this to determine where students are at over time — not just at the end of the course,” said Tod Clark, director of Race to the Top assessments.
It can easily take three years to make a test that’s valid and proven, a process that involves high-level statistics, the guidance of expert teachers and a psychometrician or two.
Teachers with special training have to break apart the state’s standards for, say, anatomy. Then they must decide what can actually be measured on a standardized test and what would better be measured in, perhaps, a small group.
Teachers then come up with rules for test writers that explain how complex to make questions or what not to ask students. Then teachers, with the help of experts such as Wright, make a test blueprint.
After more review by another team, students will take the test, but the results must be statistically analyzed before educators deem it scientifically sound. The results from those tests will then be used as a base to determine teacher effectiveness, which is where the controversy in education circles thrives.
As the testing push in Florida continues to be fueled by state and federal laws, Wright thinks school districts and parents will pay more attention to the science behind what she does.
“If you’re a parent and your student is in one teacher’s class, you would hope that your student is measured in the same way as in another teacher’s class,” Wright said. “You would want that equity.”