Should the Federal Government Be Determining How States Evaluate Teachers?

Senator Lamar Alexander, chair of the U.S. Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, held another hearing this week on the potential reauthorization of the federal Elementary and Secondary Education Act, since 2002 called No Child Left Behind (NCLB). The subject of this week’s hearing was federal requirements for evaluating school teachers. While it is early yet to predict any sort of outcome for the NCLB deliberations, Lauren Camera of Education Week speculates: “Although members of the Senate education committee agreed at a hearing Tuesday that teacher evaluations are essential for a thriving public education system, it’s unlikely that the forthcoming reauthorization of the No Child Left Behind Act will include specific requirements.”

Removing requirements for tying evaluation of teachers to students’ test scores would be a radical shift in federal policy. The Obama administration conditioned qualification for its competitive grant program Race to the Top on states’ basing evaluation of school teachers on their students’ standardized test scores.  And the Obama Department of Education’s waivers from the onerous punishments of NCLB have also been contingent upon states agreeing to connect teachers’ ratings to their students’ standardized test scores.

Describing Tuesday’s hearing of the Senate HELP Committee, Camera continues: “Republicans, including Chairman Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., said Washington shouldn’t mandate such policies, while Democrats, including ranking member Patty Murray, D-Wash., were wary of increasing the role student test scores play in evaluations and how those evaluations are used to compensate teachers.  The lack of language in the reauthorization requiring teacher evaluations will likely stop in its tracks the Obama administration’s efforts to push states to adopt evaluation systems based in part on student test scores and performance-based compensation systems, both of which were at the heart of U.S. Department of Education’s NCLB waivers.”  Camera reports on testimony presented to the Senate HELP Committee by Terry Holliday, Kentucky’s education commissioner, that evaluation of teachers should be collaborative and “not done to teachers and leaders.”

Coincidentally, the day after the Senate HELP’s hearing on evaluation of teachers, I attended a packed meeting here at home where a panel of teachers from my own school district’s elementary and middle schools and our high school spoke about how their teaching practice has been affected by standardized testing and the evaluation of teachers based on their students’ scores.  All of them were able to examine these relatively new experiences in the context of long careers that stretch before the passage of No Child Left Behind.

Natalie Wester was chosen as Ohio’s teacher of the year in 2010, but she told the crowd that she worried even as she received the award, because that year only 4 of her third grade students had passed the autumn practice exam leading up to the official state test. In the spring only 50 percent of her students achieved the “proficient” rating. What the state’s examination did not recognize and what no official rating will ever show is that every student in her class that year grew two or three performance levels. The test, like all the standardized assessments since the passage of NCLB, recognizes achievement only when children cross the passing benchmark. If a non-reader enters a third grade classroom in the fall, learns to read, and becomes a second-grade-level reader in that one year, the child still counts as a failure according to the assessment that credits success only when a child reads at grade level. Wester declared, “I fear that in a very real sense we are squashing dreams, confidence, and children’s belief in themselves through testing.”

Another teacher reported he is working this year with a small group of third graders whose reading test scores are so low the students are likely to fail the state mandated Third Grade Reading Guarantee test. Students who fail will be required to repeat third grade. This teacher says he watches his students “shut down” when they realize how far behind they are. “I see that spark of wanting to learn dying in my students. I feel we are abusing our students.”

A high school teacher of special education worried that some of her students are so far below the basic level at which the standardized test is constructed that the testing experience itself is emotionally defeating.  All of the teachers who spoke affirm the value of informal quizzes and check-ins with students—formative assessments—that provide the teachers with feedback to plan interventions, support students, readjust the lesson, and add extra challenge as the lesson is expanded.  Very often, according to all the speakers, standardized test scores come back a semester or a year after the test, long after a particular teacher can use the data to address challenges faced by the students who are no longer enrolled in their classes.

A teacher from a neighboring school district framed the evening by explaining the details of the Ohio Teacher Evaluation System, created as a requirement when Ohio applied for the federal Race to the Top competition and included as a requirement for the state to receive a federal waiver from some of the worst problems in NCLB. This system evaluates teachers in large part based on their students’ standardized test scores.  In the context of listening to a panel of professionally expert teachers speaking to their long experience working with children, it was almost baffling to try to follow the details of the plan by which Ohio’s teachers are rated “accomplished, skilled, developing or ineffective.” Teachers are spending hours filing reams of data about their teaching and their students. These reports along with formal observations of their classes count for 50 percent of their evaluation with another 50 percent from their students’ standardized test scores. A new revision of the Ohio Department of Education’s evaluation rubric will allow a school district to create alternative components for 15 percent of the overall rating and then award 42.5 percent on reports and observations and another 42.5 percent for students’ test scores.

As I listened to  the description of the burdensome evaluation system set up by the Ohio Department of Education, I know I was not the only person thinking about Natalie Wester’s students.  Each one of them gained at least two or three performance levels in her class, but only 50 percent of her children passed the state’s proficiency benchmark that year. Even if they have made substantial academic progress, children’s failures to reach a particular cut score affect not only them and their confidence and will to persist, but also shape the formal state evaluation scores of their teachers—even for Ohio’s teacher of the year.

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