State moves to new evaluation system for teachers, principals

Starting this fall, Georgia’s 119,000 teachers and principals will be graded on a new scale that formally includes student test scores, upping the ante on a standardized testing system some have argued is already too weighty.

The state Board of Education gave final approval Thursday to the new system, which nearly all districts in the state have been informally piloting for the past couple of years.

This fall the training wheels come off and student growth — as measured by end-of-course tests and the Criterion-Referenced Competency Test — will officially make up half of how teachers and principals are evaluated. That’s a sharp departure from how evaluations were handled in the past, with a supervisor making observations and giving nearly every teacher high marks. Those didn’t square with test scores and graduation rates that are lower than the national average.

Georgia’s new plan comes amid a national discussion about whether and how student test scores should be factored into evaluating teachers and principals.

“This is very, very important,” board member Mike Royal said. “I don’t think there’s anything more important we can do as a board than making sure we have highly effective teachers in the classroom.”

Observation will still count for half of a teacher’s evaluation, and it — along with retaining effective teachers, student attendance rates and closing the gap in academic performance between groups of students — will remain a part of how principals are evaluated, too.

Teachers and principals will get one of four ratings: exemplary, proficient, needs improvement and ineffective. Teachers and principals who get a needs improvement or ineffective rating in two years of any five-year period and who do not get additional training or counseling will not have their teaching certificate renewed. School districts are to use the evaluations to make decisions on promotions, transfers and dismissals.

But the move to formally use test scores rankles some, who worry educators would be hurt by poor test scores that are sometimes driven by factors beyond any teacher’s control. Some caught up in the CRCT cheating scandal exposed by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution said the pressure to have their students do well was a contributing factor.

“Teachers can’t be here because they are teaching,” Cita Cook, a retired educator, told board members Thursday morning. “If they were here, they might sound a little bit angrier than I will be. Fifty percent for high-stakes testing is too much.”

Mary Kay Bacallao, an education professor at Mercer University and a candidate for Georgia superintendent, also raised concerns about relying on test scores to measure teacher effectiveness.

“So what will happen if the results of these WRONG tests are used to evaluate our teachers, our school leaders, and our schools?” she asked in an e-mail to the AJC. “Teachers will have to choose. Will they meet the needs of their students or will they become servants of the government-corporate assessment rating system?”

While there is concern about its use of testing data, Georgia’s new system has not generated an uprising from teachers. Some have praised it as an improvement over the previously used, largely observation-based system, which they have criticized as vague and overly subjective.

The question of how to measure teacher and principal performance has been an incendiary topic in public education for at least the past decade. It’s taken on urgency and a sharp political edge in recent years as the U.S. Department of Education under President Obama has used the incentive of large federal grants to encourage states to make various education changes, including adoption of merit pay systems that tie student performance to changes in teacher pay.

Teacher groups that had been reliable backers of Democrats have been at odds with the Obama administration, pushing back against what they describe as an over-reliance on testing that feeds a high-stakes atmosphere where teachers could be punished for poor student performance that is rooted in factors beyond any educator’s control.

That pushback began early in Obama’s term. In July of 2009, Obama’s education secretary, Arne Duncan, endured the wrath of National Education Association members who booed him when he urged the group during a meeting in San Diego to embrace merit pay.

“I understand that tests are far from perfect and that it is unfair to reduce the complex, nuanced work of teaching to a simple multiple-choice exam,” Duncan said. “Test scores alone should never drive evaluation, compensation or tenure decisions. That would never make sense. But to remove student achievement entirely from evaluation is illogical and indefensible.”

That mindset, which put the administration in alignment with Republicans who have generally been more supportive of using test scores to measure teacher effectiveness, has been adopted by political leaders in many states. Teacher groups have fought back; educators in Florida, North Carolina and Tennessee have filed lawsuits challenging aspects of evaluation systems adopted in those states.

Legal challenges have centered on merit pay, not on the use of test data, though. Much to the consternation of the U.S. Department of Education, Georgia’s new evaluation system does not include a merit pay component.

In applying for a Race to the Top education reform grant, the state had promised to develop a system that would include merit pay. After winning a $400 million grant, however, the state made major changes to the system it was developing, limiting the use of student surveys and scrapping merit pay.

Georgia Superintendent John Barge, who was not in that position when the grant application was submitted, said the fairness and reliability of the new system should be evaluated before teacher and administrative pay is pegged to it.

The U.S. Department of Education has responded by beginning a process to withhold a $10 million portion of the grant.

Teachers, assistant principals and principals will be observed and rated for the following:

Teachers

Professional knowledge; instructional planning; instructional strategies; providing individualized content and skills development for students when necessary; choosing valid strategies to assess students; gathering and analyzing information to improve teaching methods and provide feedback to students and parents; having a positive learning environment; maintaining an academically challenging environment; professionalism; and communication.

Assistant principals and principals

Instructional leadership; school climate, planning and assessment; organizational management; human resources management; teacher/staff evaluation; professionalism; and communications/community relations.

By Wayne Washington
The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

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