Teacher Evaluations Pose Test for States
Stephanie Banchero, Wall Street Journal, March 8, 2012 –
Efforts to revamp public education are increasingly focused on evaluating teachers using student test scores, but school districts nationwide are only beginning to deal with the practical challenges of implementing those changes.
Mike Brown for The Wall Street Journal
Music teacher Anthony Q. Richardson works with fourth- and fifth-graders in Memphis, Tenn., where evaluations include student portfolios.
Only an estimated 30% of classroom teachers in the U.S. work in grades or subjects covered by state standardized tests. Currently, most states test students only in math and reading in third through eighth grades and once in high school, as mandated by the federal No Child Left Behind law. Few states test students in other core subjects, such as science and social studies, and for many other subjects there is no testing at all.
Rolling out systemwide tests and devising ways to measure educator effectiveness require additional spending for states and districts, many already low on cash. And some parents and teachers complain that the effort has translated into more testing for children, taking away from classroom learning.
“Nothing like this has ever been done on this scale, and states and districts have to ensure it’s done in a rigorous way so we feel confident the information actually reflects how well teachers are helping students learn,” said Mariann Lemke, a researcher with the National Comprehensive Center for Teacher Quality, a federally funded research group that advises states.
The efforts began two years ago, spurred by President Barack Obama’s Race to the Top education initiative, which has doled out $4.35 billion to states that have embraced reforms. Governors had been pushing similar efforts on their own at the state level. In the past two years, at least 30 states have passed such legislation and are in the process of implementing changes.
Washington state lawmakers passed a bill in late February that will judge teachers on student achievement, and lawmakers in Kansas and Wisconsin are currently debating the issue.
Some states and districts are looking to adopt a system like the one in Hillsborough County Public Schools in Florida, where the district created exams for every subject at every grade five years ago in an effort to award merit pay to teachers.
Tennessee rolled out a system this year that ties most teacher evaluations, even those in subjects like music and gym, to schoolwide math and reading scores. In Memphis, the system is being refined, with music, drama and dance teachers creating their own “portfolios” to prove students have progressed under their tutelage.
“No system is perfect,” said Kevin Huffman, commissioner of the Tennessee Department of Education, “but the question is whether the one we have now is better and more fair than the previous one. And the answer is, indisputably, yes.”
In North Carolina, a team of 800 teachers is working with state officials to create standardized exams for virtually every subject. But some of the efforts have hit roadblocks.
In Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools, officials jettisoned 52 end-of-the-year exams last month that were created to measure teacher effectiveness after parents complained. Parents were especially angered by kindergarten exams, administered one student at a time, saying they ate up too much instructional time. The exams were used for only one year before being scrapped.
Latarzja Henry, spokeswoman for the district, said the testing regimen was ditched because the district plans to adopt the new assessments state officials are creating.
Pamela Grundy, the mother of a fifth-grader and co-chairwoman of Mecklenburg Area Coming Together for Schools, a parent advocacy group, thinks parental outcry played a roll.
She said school-board meetings were packed with parents who were “appalled” by the increase in student testing. “We thought it was stifling kids’ creativity and warping our children’s classroom experience,” she said.
Elsewhere in the country, a Louisiana state lawmaker recently filed a bill to delay the new teacher evaluations, citing concerns about adopting potentially costly new evaluation methods that might lack validity.
Memphis music teacher Jeff Chipman is part of a small group of teachers piloting the new assessment based on student portfolios, and he acknowledges the district’s challenges.
“We are about teaching kids to perform and experience art, and that cannot be measured with a pencil-and-paper test,” he said. “We want to be evaluated on how we help kids grow, but we don’t want to turn the arts program into a testing machine.”
Write to Stephanie Banchero at email@example.com
A version of this article appeared Mar. 8, 2012, on page A2 in some U.S. editions of The Wall Street Journal, with the headline: Teacher Evaluations Pose Test for States.