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 Florida 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.
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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 eventually will be a part of their personal rating.