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Pay Based on Test Scores?

What educators need to know about linking teacher pay to student achievement.

By John Rosales

How do you define your success as a teacher? Are you well-prepared? Experienced? Board-certified? Congratulations! You must be a good teacher. Well, maybe.

How were your students’ test scores? Some districts (perhaps yours) want to reward educators on the basis of student test scores. Some already do.

It’s one of education’s burning hot issues: pay-for-performance, and it's becoming one of the determining factors in whether you are judged a success or flat-out failure.

Education Secretary Arne Duncan says performance pay for teachers is his department’s “highest priority.” The Obama Administration created the $4.3 billion Race to the Top fund to encourage states to implement performance pay systems and other changes.

Legislators and elected officials are answering that charge and considering using student performance as a criterion in setting teacher pay. But such a move comes with serious, potential pitfalls. For example, when pay raises are based on student test scores, you’re only measuring a narrow piece of the teacher’s work. In addition, such plans can pit employee against employee, especially when there’s a quota for merit increases. What happens to teachers who do not teach tested subjects? How are they rewarded?

There are other potential problems with alternative compensation systems. Any educator whose district is considering or bargaining such a system, needs to ask these questions:

  • Is there adequate funding for the new pay system and is it sustainable?
  • Is it easily understood and transparent?
  • Are evaluations subjective or objective?
  • Have administrative and implementation costs been considered?
  • Are the sizes of incentives large enough to change behavior?

 “We all must be wary of any system that creates a climate where students are viewed as part of the pay equation, rather than young people who deserve a high quality education that prepares them for their future,” says Bill Raabe, NEA’s director of Collective Bargaining and Member Benefits. “We can all do a better job of linking quality professional development and career opportunities directly to the pay system.”

So what makes a quality pay system? It should begin with professional level starting pay (at least $40,000) and have no more than 10 steps. And you should move through the salary system for things that actually improve teaching and student learning, such as experience, knowledge and skills, and National Board Certification. Some plans also grant extra pay for other assignments, such as peer coaching, mentoring newer educators, earning advanced degrees, or working in hard-to-staff schools.

NEA supports systems that create career paths and include teachers as partners in any compensation reform effort.

“It is crucial that all pay plans or policies be negotiated with teachers in collective bargaining, or developed collaboratively with the Association where there is no bargaining,” says Raabe.

Fortunately, some districts have heard the message. Below are two examples of alternative pay systems designed to serve the needs of members in their areas. Both emphasize teachers’ professional development and were the results of negotiations between the school district and the local Association.

Portland, Maine

 Since 2007, the Portland Education Association (PEA) has operated under the Professional Learning Based Salary System (PLBSS) with its 740 members participating in professional development and other activities that are awarded salary contact hours (SCH) and result in a lane change.

“Our salary system is based on the statement that the best indicator of student learning is teacher learning,” says Gary Vines, who led PEA to a new salary system in 2007. “A high quality teacher is the most important factor in student learning.”

Here’s how it works: Under PLBSS, educators move horizontally across five salary lanes based on the earning of SCH for participation in professional learning activities.

Work on district committees, curriculum design, and leading student activities can contribute to earning the SCH needed to gain a lane change. Staff also can gain SCH for participating in learning activities and taking college courses.

“We wanted to recognize some of the kind of ‘above and beyond the job definition’ work that teachers always do as having an impact on their base salary,” says Vines, a high school guidance counselor.

In order to move to another lane, staff must accumulate 225 SCH.  College credit awards and individual proposals can be made for hours applied to an activity (see ).


When changing lanes, staff members can immediately and permanently increase their salary from between $2,100 and $8,900, depending on their starting step. If an individual moved from Lane 1/ Step 1 (brand new teacher) to Lane 5/Step 1 at the quickest possible pace (13 years), they would move from $33,000 to $67,000.

The highest paid teachers in the prior system (doctorate, 31 years) could earn $64,000. Now, teachers who continually participate in approved professional development could earn $15,000 more nine years earlier.

Helena, Montana

 In Montana, professional development and service to the school district and community is what matters most in determining pay increases.

The Helena Education Association (HEA) introduced the Professional Compensation Alternative Plan in 2004. Under its salary schedule educators earn $35,040 in their first year and work their way up to $73,173.

“Our performance plan is not based on any type of test scores,” says Larry Nielsen, a UniServ Director with MEA-MFT and former president of HEA. “If you invest the money up front in professional development, it has been proven that student achievement will improve.”

Though teachers had the option of remaining under the traditional salary schedule, the majority of HEA’s members embraced the new system in which they can advance according to the following mutually-agreed on criteria:

The Career Development Plan, which is written by educators for themselves and “designed to get people to be innovative,” says Nielsen, who was a band teacher for 19 years before joining MEA-MFT. It is based on the principle of “professionals helping professionals to be better professionals.”

Professional Service Commitment – Those activities educators participate in outside of the bargaining contract for which they receive no compensation. These activities are not assigned, but are performed in agreement with school administrators. “Anything that benefits the students, the school, or the district is applied here,” Nielsen says. This includes union work performed by officers, building representatives, and committee members. “Union work is a professional service to the district,” he says.  

Positive Evaluation Written by an administrator, there are two guidelines followed:
1) Professional growth, where teachers write a plan in conjunction with administrators.
2) Check-out, where an administrator meets with a teacher and checks off items and tasks from a list noting what the teacher has accomplished during the evaluation period. Administrators also write an essay-type narrative which accompanies the check-out list.

At the end of the school year, “the teacher and administrator meet, and if the educator has met the criteria, they advance,” Nielsen says.

For more about pay trends, examples of other districts' pay plans, and a glossary of terms, see “Where is Your Pay Heading” and “New Money Moves: A Risky Alternative.” 


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Why Money Matters

Why Money Matters
Lack of professional pay shortchanges our schools.