Schools Grapple With Linking Student Test Scores To Teacher Evaluations

Jul 1, 2014

It's summer vacation for students - and teachers - across the country. Administrators often use the summer to take a bigger look at how schools are doing, and that can mean a critical look at teachers. Oregon Public Broadcasting's Rob Manning looks at evaluations for current teachers - and the role of student test scores in those evaluations.

Jan LeBlanc, a teacher at Cherry Park Elementary, helps one of her students.
Credit Michael Clapp / OPB

Visit an Oregon classroom in the spring, and chances are good there'll be students taking a standardized test somewhere. Here's Jan LeBlanc's first grade room, at Cherry Park Elementary in mid-April.

LeBlanc: "Now, we're going to move down to number one, for the real test questions..."

The federal Department of Education wants states to use student scores from tests like these to help evaluate teachers. It's required, if states want to avoid possible sanctions under the federal No Child Left Behind law.

Education secretary Arne Duncan defended the policy in a speech, earlier this month, to the national PTA.

Duncan: "Support and evaluation for teachers should take into account students' growth and gain as one part of a mix of measures."

Connecting student test scores to teacher evaluations has been controversial in Oregon, for some time.

More than a year ago, Portland high schoolers protested standardized exams. The tie to evaluations was one reason Cleveland High student, Ian Jackson, joined the walkout.

Jackson: "I don't think any teacher should be evaluated by this test - because that creates a 'test curriculum' - so there should be no evaluation based off of tests."

Secretary Duncan disagrees. He argues instead that teachers will improve what they do - not teach to the test.

Duncan: "Great teaching, that's what leads to real learning and strong results on assessments - not time spent on test prep."

Concerns among teachers have deepened, as students switch to the "Smarter Balanced" exam next school year, aligned to the Common Core standards. Stan Karp is a former New Jersey schoolteacher who spoke in Portland, last fall. He says the tests are too new to use for teacher evaluations.

Karp: "While reasonable people can find things of value in the Common Core standards, there is no credible defense of the useless plan for these tests."

Just last month, Oregon's statewide teachers' union called for a moratorium on the Smarter Balanced exams.

The Seattle-based Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation helped craft the Common Core standards. But Gates education director, Vicki Phillips, now acknowledges that teachers have a valid complaint. Phillips is familiar to Oregonians, because she used to be Portland's superintendent. She backs a two-year delay in tying student scores to teacher evaluations.

Phillips: "We've heard from teachers that they are hugely supportive of the standards themselves, but that they worry that the new assessments - while they think they might be a lot better, that the data from them is as yet unproven."

The suggestion from Gates came too late for the foundation's home state of Washington. Legislators in Olympia had to change state law to connect scores and evaluations, but they didn't - so Washington lost its waiver last month. Washington superintendent Randy Dorn says it means school districts effectively lose a big chunk of their federal funds.

Dorn: "So what that means is 20 percent of your Title One funds form the federal government have to be set aside - that the district can't use it, that it has to be set aside - for outside private vendors, to help do tutorial for students."

Oregon was put on notice last year that it could lose its waiver from No Child Left Behind. Chief Education Officer Nancy Golden says Oregon's new proposal should maintain the waiver. She says it bases twenty percent of a teacher's evaluation on student achievement.

Golden: "But the way we do it, is very much to say - as a teacher, you have to assess where students are when they come to you and based on that, you set a goal about where you can get them. So it's not based on meeting a certain level according to the Smarter Balanced, it's about the teacher setting a goal for each of their students."

Golden says she worked with school administrators and teachers unions on the proposal. But Gwen Sullivan, the president of Portland's union, says this is the first she's hearing that twenty percent of evaluations would come from student scores. Sullivan says her members would likely oppose that.

Education chief, Nancy Golden, says Oregon would not use the new Common Core exams for that twenty percent of evaluations, for at least the first year.

She says the other eighty percent would come from classroom observations - and what teachers do outside of class, like collaborating with other staff, and communicating with parents.

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