Teacher Accountability and Testing

By Doug Archbald

Consider this recent court case: An unsupervised elementary school boy throws an apple into a girls’ restroom during lunch. A girl in the restroom is injured. Even though the boy had not meant to harm anyone, the parents sued the school for negligence and won.

How is this relevant to “value-added assessment,” a process that uses student test data to evaluate teacher performance? Like tort law, it is concerned with accountability. How tort law views accountability helps us understand what value-added assessment seeks to accomplish.

Under tort law, teachers have a professional duty to care for their students. If a teacher fails in this duty and this failure causes or contributes to a student’s injury, the teacher can be held liable (i.e., accountable). For instance, a chemistry teacher must follow prescribed safety precautions and procedures so students don’t get injured in a chemistry experiment. If a student is injured because of teacher carelessness, the teacher can be held liable -- in other words, accountable under the law for being the cause of the injury.

On the other hand, a student may be injured even though the teacher acted properly. In another case, two teenage boys stole a small amount of a chemical from their chemistry class and later tried to make a pipe bomb. The pipe bomb went off while they were making it and their parents sued the school. In this case, the parents lost. The boys’ injuries were a result of factors outside of the school’s control. To hold the school accountable with blame and punitive damages would be unjust -- legally and morally wrong.

Holding someone accountable is taken seriously in tort law. The stakes are high for the one being held accountable. In the case of the girl getting hit by the apple, inadequate supervision was considered the cause of the injury. Everyone knew the area was a trouble spot during the lunch hour. In the case of the teenagers injured by their bomb, this consequence was not a result of actions or failures to act on the part of the teacher or the school.

Tort cases require a rigorous examination of evidence. This evidence is examined within a framework that helps assign causality and accountability. In legal accountability, evidence must show the link between causes and effects -- between the teacher’s actions and the direct consequences of those actions for the injured student. A teacher is held accountable if his or her actions are considered causal to the injury. Just as importantly, the teacher is not held accountable for an outcome over which he or she has little or no control. 

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