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Election year politics and teacher protests may lead to changes in evaluations


At a recent education forum in Atlanta, Michael Petrilli, president of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, a conservative-leaning think tank, questioned Georgia’s plan to base half of its teacher evaluations on student scores on the new Milestones, an exam he derided as “a $12 fill-in-the blank test.”

Weighting test scores so heavily is bound to upset teachers, especially with a new and unproven test, he warned.

While state leaders may quibble with Petrilli’s denigration of the Georgia Milestones — the state Department of Education told me Georgia spends $25 per test including grading costs — they apparently now agree using a single test score for 50 percent of a teacher’s rating is wrong.

(An aside: Georgia left the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers because of the projected costs of the tests it was developing. But DOE says we are now spending $25.48 on average per test. I went to the PARCC site today, and it says, "The PARCC annual state tests in reading, writing and math cost $23.97 per student for computer-based administration of the assessment, plus a small administrative fee." A study released today by the Fordham Institute declared the PARCC tests are high-quality and utilize advanced thinking rather than memorization. Can someone explain how we saved money going with our home-grown tests?)

Two new Senate bills call for dialing back the significance of test scores. (The bills also seek to streamline testing, end duplicate testing and bolster the diagnostic worth.) The change of heart can be credited to two forces; it’s an election year and educators mounted strong arguments that test scores are an imprecise indicator of teacher quality.

Under Senate Bill 355, introduced this week by Sen. William T. Ligon, R-Brunswick, test scores would count a mere 10 percent in teacher ratings.

Kate Walsh, president of the National Council on Teacher Quality, said 10 percent lowers the bar too much. “The 10 percent is just meaningless; it makes it almost trivial,” said Walsh, while in Atlanta today. “It represents a great deal of cynicism about the quality of the tests available. If teachers feel the tests accurately capture what students are learning and their progress in the classroom, most teachers are well-meaning and would probably support student growth being used in evaluations.”

A 2015 report by the National Council on Teacher Quality found 42 states and the District of Columbia adopted policies requiring student growth and achievement factor into teacher evaluations. Walsh recommends test scores count for 35 percent of teacher evaluations, a level that she says communicates, “Student learning matters.”

Introduced today, Senate Bill 364 from Sen. Lindsey Tippins, R-Marietta, chairman of the Senate Education and Youth Committee, is closer to that mark. It would set the test-based component of teacher evaluations at 30 percent.

State School Superintendent Richard Woods threw his support behind the Tippins bill, which has a higher likelihood of passing given the stature of its sponsor. “This would allow the evaluation system to become more of a coaching tool instead of a gotcha’ tool,” said Woods. “We conducted a survey of more than 53,000 Georgia teachers, and an overwhelming percentage selected ‘number of state-mandated tests’ and the ‘method for evaluating teachers’ as the main reasons why 44 percent of newly hired teachers leave the profession within five years.

Both bills won praise from the Georgia Association of Educators. “We would like to thank them both on their efforts to help bring some rationality to the process,” said GAE President Sid Chapman.

Over the last 15 years, the federal focus — embodied by George Bush’s No Child Left Behind Act and Barack Obama’s Race to the Top grants — has been on raising student performance by raising test scores. The pressure to improve test scores traveled from the White House to the State House to the schoolhouse, landing squarely on teachers.

Teachers are leery of tethering their fates — and their pay under a proposal floated by Gov. Nathan Deal — to how students perform on one test on one day. As a teacher said recently on this blog, “We expect to be evaluated. But evaluate us on what we can control: our planning and teaching, our education, experience, and professional development. Teachers take what we are given, and we do the best we can. Evaluate us fairly. The burden for teaching is on teachers. The burden for learning should be on students, and by extension on the parents. Until our society returns to this understanding and stops placing both burdens on teachers, education is not going to improve.”


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About the Author

Maureen Downey has written editorials and opinion pieces about local, state and federal education policy since the 1990s.