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Efforts to Reform Teacher Evaluations Hit Snag

Some critics of Texas' largely subjective state teacher evaluations want them to include more emphasis on measures of student performance like standardized exams. But with support among lawmakers to scale back testing, those efforts have hit a roadblock.

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When Texas lawmakers rolled out a framework for evaluating public school teachers more than 15 years ago, they intended to identify ways to strengthen the state’s teaching corps.

But the regular result of the largely subjective evaluations since then has been: No improvement needed.

Less than 3 percent of educators receive scores below the “proficient” level, and the variation in scores from year to year has been so small that state officials stopped collecting the data from school districts after the 2010-11 academic year.

Critics say the reviews, based on single, 45-minute observations by district administrators, make it difficult to provide effective feedback, a point that education officials do not refute. A growing chorus of education reform advocates wants to tie teacher evaluations to objective measures, like student performance on standardized tests. But with the current movement in the Legislature to reducing such testing, lawmakers have not agreed on how evaluations should be conducted.

Teachers themselves see shortcomings with the evaluation system, in which they are rated  “exceeds expectations,” “proficient,” “below expectations” or “unsatisfactory” across eight areas including student participation, time management in the classroom, and overall campus academic achievement, but offer little specific guidance on how to improve. Local districts determine whether those evaluations play a role in firing or salary decisions.

Stacey Hodge, a second-year teacher at a Dallas Independent School District middle school, recently was rated as “exceeding expectations” in four of the state’s criteria, and “proficient” in the others.

A space on the evaluation form for comments about “areas to address” was blank.

“I can’t go any higher than exceeds expectations,” she said. “I think I do a really good job, but am I where I need to be?”

Michele Moore, an associate commissioner at the Texas Education Agency, said the lack of feedback was a problem.  At the start of the current school year, the agency quietly began testing two new evaluation programs at 83 campuses across the state that included more frequent observations.

But neither of those programs includes a strong emphasis on objective measures of student performance, which many reform advocates view as essential to meaningful appraisals. And with the overwhelming support among state lawmakers to scale back standardized testing in response to widespread complaints from parents, efforts at the Legislature to tie evaluations to such tests have hit a roadblock.

“The objective use of student performance has been a challenging one given the role the debate over standardized tests has played,” said John Fitzpatrick, the executive director of Educate Texas, a nonprofit education advocacy group.

In 2011, Fitzpatrick’s organization launched the Texas Teaching Commission, which includes more than two dozen educators, to develop policy recommendations for improving teacher quality.

While some of those recommendations, like strengthening requirements for educator certification programs, have gained traction, legislation emphasizing student achievement as part of teacher evaluations has stalled.

The Senate recently passed a bill from Education Chairman Dan Patrick, R-Houston, focused on teacher appraisal and preparation. But in negotiations before the proposal came to the floor, Patrick dropped a section that would have weighted student achievement heavily in teacher evaluations, because of fears that it would use standardized test performance as a measurement.

During debate on the floor, Sen. Wendy Davis, D-Fort Worth, expressed reservations about a test-based component. She noted extensive testimony that lawmakers had heard on concerns with the testing system, and said that the legislation ran the risk of “placing yet higher stakes on test scores.” Until lawmakers are convinced the statewide tests can accurately reflect student learning and growth, she said, they should “resist modifying the current evaluation system.”

A similar House proposal is still lingering in committee.

Texas is not alone in debating over how teachers should be evaluated, said Sandi Jacobs, the state policy director of the National Council on Teacher Quality.

“Our teacher evaluation systems have not been very successful,” she said. “We haven’t had good information to identify our superstars or our chronic underperformers.”

Though about two dozen states have moved toward incorporating test scores in teacher evaluations in the past five years, it is too early for a consensus about the best approach, Jacobs said.

Part of the challenge, she said, is identifying measures of learning that can be used for students in grades and subjects where standardized tests are not given. Florida is facing a federal lawsuit over its use of test scores in evaluations for teachers based on subjects or students they do not teach.

Texas students begin taking state standardized exams in third grade. Before they reach high school, they are tested each year in reading and math but are tested less frequently in subjects like science, writing and social studies. The Legislature is considering a proposal that would reduce the number of exams students must take in high school to five from the current 15.

Teachers’ groups have opposed the use of standardized test scores in evaluations. A recommendation for a test-based measure was a major sticking point for representatives from the four major state teacher associations participating in the Teaching Commission’s report, who refused to sign on to the final result.

Holly Eaton, a lawyer with the Texas Classroom Teachers Association, said that because of questions about the validity of evaluations based on test scores, and given problems in other states, there is no reason to overhaul the current framework. “Our members do enjoy and value input and feedback, particularly from their principal,” she said. “They want their principal in their classrooms as often as possible, but that is a less formal kind of system.”

Though most Texas school districts use the state-recommended framework, some, including the Houston district, the state’s largest, have developed their own. Houston instituted an incentive pay system linked to test scores in the 1990s under Superintendent Rod Paige, who later became President George W. Bush’s secretary of education.

Janet Gray, an American history teacher in her 18th year in the district, said that she recognized a need for objective measures to evaluate teachers. But she said that to be fair, such measures had to assess the content being taught. Because she teaches a subject that is not tested by the state every year, part of her evaluation is based on a formula that considers results of a seventh-grade national standardized exam that does not cover state history, which Texas students learn that year, along with an  eighth-grade state exam after they complete her course.

“I don’t inherently have a problem with test scores or student achievement being a part of evaluations,” she said. “There just needs to be a transparent way to figure out what that is.”

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