Building Better Teachers

State board stops short of guiding schools toward more test scores in teacher ratings

PHOTO: Scott Elliott
The Indiana State Board of Education held off on major changes to teacher evaluation today.

The Indiana State Board of Education today held off a decision to ask school districts to count test scores and other “objective” measures of teaching as bigger factors in annual teacher ratings.

Board member Gordon Hendry said the board wants to talk with legislators and get public feedback before determining how to guide schools to help them determine what counts as “objective measures” of teaching quality how to meet the standard in state law that requires test results and other measures to “significantly inform” a teacher’s rating.

“The board will not be setting specific numbers today at the meeting,” Hendry said.

A large crowd, including several educators, came to the meeting expecting a vote on a proposal to set minimum and maximum percentages for how much teacher ratings should be driven primarily by student test score gains. The guidelines would have encouraged schools to count test scores for as much as half of the teacher’s rating score.

The board approved other recommendations  for teacher evaluation by a 7-4 vote, with state Superintendent Glenda Ritz and board members Cari Whicker, Troy Albert and Andrea Neal voting no. The dissenting board members said they opposed to changes because new tests and new accountability systems in the works right now make it difficult to change how teachers are evaluated. Whicker and Neal are classroom teachers, and Albert is a principal.

“For me it’s just a premature vote,” Neal said. “The assessment situation is just so up in the air, and until that situation resolves itself, I am uncomfortable moving a new teacher evaluation system forward.”

But Hendry said changes must be made sooner.

“The vast majority of educators currently say they are dissatisfied with the system,” he said.

A 2011 law that overhauled teacher evaluation in Indiana left decisions about how to count student test scores in a teacher’s rating up to local school districts. That law required student test score growth to “significantly inform” a teacher’s evaluation score, which was interpreted very differently by different school districts.

“The downside of local control is that what ends up happening is that there is a high degree of variability across the state,” said Jessica Conlon of The New Teacher Project. “Some districts weigh objective measures as low as 5 percent and others as high as 50 percent.”

A list of recommended changes to teacher evaluation processes was brought to the board by a consultant, New York-based The New Teacher Project, resulted from feedback the state got from the U.S. Department of Education as part of a waiver that releases Indiana from some of the sanctions of the federal No Child Left Behind law.

The consultant proposed increased training and communication among teachers and administrators along with suggesting schools count in more tests. But even giving guidance on what percentage of a teacher’s rating should be based on tests could require a change in state law.

Under the original recommendations, districts could break teachers’ evaluations into two big categories: one-half to two-thirds of the rating would be based on observations of their teaching, while the remaining one-half to one-third would be based mostly on student gains on state tests.

If a teacher is in a subject that is not part of the state testing system, then other sorts of test and objective measures such as portfolios of student work could count for as much as 40 percent of their ratings, under the recommendations. School districts would still determine their percentages within those ranges.

Indiana teachers this year saw predominantly positive ratings — more than 97 percent of the state’s teachers who were rated were deemed “highly effective” or “effective,” the top two of four categories. Hardly any were rated “ineffective.”

Daniel Brugioni, a high school English teacher in Lake Ridge schools near Gary, said putting too much emphasis on student test scores misses much of the improvement struggling students make throughout a school year. Brugioni said his supervisors consided the 51 percent of his students that passed the English end-of-course exam last year a “dismal failure,” but 110 of his 129 students began high school reading below a ninth-grade level.

“In any other parameter or any other statistical group, that would be a miracle, and I would be lauded,” Brugioni said.

Teaching cannot be judged primarily on numbers and statistics, said Ryan Russell, assistant superintendent in Warren Township. Poverty and other factors outside of school can affect how children perform on tests, he said. It’s not fair that teachers in high-poverty schools risk lower ratings because their students tend not to score as well on tests.

“Do we really believe — if we move highly effective teachers from a middle class district to a high-poverty one — do we really think the students would perform better?” Russell said. “If we do, let’s just set up a teacher exchange program and that will solve all our problems.”

Whicker said it’s not realistic to believe schools can use objective measures other than state test scores, such as portfolios.

“To grade 120 portfolios for my students across the state is not really realistic,” she said. “Well, we’re back to the ISTEP test, so that’s what practical. So we can talk about objective measures even just to talk about them, but the truth is that’s not the reality. That’s just less time for me to teach.”

 

Parent-to-Para

How the Adams 14 school district is empowering parents to join the classroom

PHOTO: Yesenia Robles
A parent volunteer works with two kindergarteners on reading as part of a pilot program at Dupont Elementary School that is training parents to become paraprofessionals.

Raeann Javier would like to know what she can do to help her second-grader read better. Sometimes, sitting with her daughter, the best she could offer was, “You know how to do this.”

Javier, a single mother, also would love to land another job to earn more for her family.

A pilot program launched by Adams 14 School District in Commerce City may help her with both.

The school district is trying to build more knowledgeable, active parents through classes and volunteer time working with young students struggling to read. For those who are interested, the program also provides parents a path to become paraprofessionals, or teacher’s aides.

The initiative is one way the nearly 8,000-student suburban district — facing state intervention this year after years of poor academic performance — is trying to turn things around.

District surveys found parents were looking for ways to become more supportive.

Javier, one of 17 mothers in the program, said she already feels like she has become a more patient parent less than a month in. She also is interested in becoming a paraprofessional to supplement the income she earns as an at-home nurse.

“It’s a little bit tough. I make it work,” Javier said. “But this would really, really help.”

Other parents taking part in the pilot program already were volunteers at their kids’ schools.

“They usually just did the normal things like helping with copying or sorting papers,” said Jesse Martinez, Adams 14’s director for family and community engagement. “But we really wanted to change that dynamic. We wanted to pull in our parents to tap their potential and bring them in to support their children.”

One of the parent volunteers, Susana Torres, was an elementary school teacher for 10 years before coming to the United States. Now with three children in district schools, Torres jumped at the opportunity to get back into a classroom.

“This is my thing,” Torres said. “I love the program.”

Torres also helps other Spanish-speaking moms who are part of the program. She said that even though they don’t have the teaching background she does, the program has made it easy for all of them to learn to help kids. “All you need is a passion to make change,” she said.

Pat Almeida, the principal of Dupont Elementary, where the program is being piloted, said the goal is also to help more students become proficient in reading before third grade — especially those who are not far behind but just need a boost to get to grade level.

“We’re able to give them more repetition so they can apply that to their reading,” Almeida said. “If they’re able to have more repetition, their progress is going to be accelerated.”

Dupont Elementary is among the Adams 14 schools that is struggling, though the school isn’t yet facing sanctions like the district as a whole is this year.

District officials have been working on setting up reforms all year to present to the state as a suggestion for their corrective action, including getting help from an outside company for developing curriculum and testing. Increasing parental engagement through this and other new efforts, like having teachers visit families at home, are part of the work to improve the district.

The parent-to-para program is being funded with money from the Denver-based Rose Community Foundation (Rose also supports Chalkbeat) and Climb Higher Colorado, a coalition of advocacy groups that support strong academic standards and tests.

At Dupont, while the parent volunteers work with almost 75 students that they pull out of class for about an hour, teachers can spend the time in class working with students who need the most help.

An instructional coach supervises the moms to work with groups of two to six students and helps them plan lessons each day for kids.

During one lesson this week, parents were helping kindergarteners learn how to differentiate between capital and lowercase letters and how to sound out words. Some students were still having trouble identifying letters, while one boy was writing words so quickly he was standing up, moving around and at one point fell.

The volunteers said it’s rewarding to see the kids catching on.

“Knowing that just a little bit of our time can help them is a good feeling,” said volunteer Adelaida Guerrero. “It’s an excellent opportunity for them and for us.”

For Maria Rodriguez, the program has unexpectedly given her another benefit — bringing her closer to her teenage daughters. She said she joined the program because when a bilingual program for her two oldest daughters was removed seven years ago, she had stopped being able to help them on their school work.

When Rodriguez heard about the program, she thought she could prepare to help her younger children, a second and third grader, before they too required more help than she could offer.

“It’s brilliant,”Rodriguez said. “I’ve been helping them work on their vowels.”

Within the last week, the two older girls came to Rodriguez complaining that she hadn’t ever worked to help them in the same way, and asking to join in during the at-home lessons. Over time, the girls had kept their ability to speak Spanish, but never learned how to write it. Now they were asking to learn alongside their younger siblings.

“They have that apathy of adolescence that makes them not always want to get close to us as parents,” Rodriguez said, tearing up as she recalled the moment. “I honestly felt really good.”

the write way

What’s missing from the conversation about the state’s ditched literacy test for teachers?

PHOTO: Monica Disare
The Board of Regents applauds James Tallon at his last meeting, moments after officially voting to eliminate a literacy test for prospective teachers.

In a major change to teacher certification, New York officials decided prospective teachers will no longer have to pass an “academic literacy” test in order to enter classrooms.

It didn’t take long for media outlets to jump on the news, raising concerns that teachers who struggle to read and write could now be able to enter New York’s classrooms.

State officials say that argument is misguided. Since aspiring teachers must earn a college degree, and pass three other certification exams, they argue, illiterate applicants will not make the cut in the first place. The exam also is inherently flawed, they say, and kept a disproportionate number of black and Hispanic teachers out of schools.

But experts say that narrow debate about literacy misses a broader conversation. They argue that the test was never meant to protect against a flood of teachers unable to read and write. It was, however, intended to help ensure high teacher quality, they say, and the question is whether the current certification process furthers that goal.

The Academic Literacy Skills Test, which the state implemented a few years ago, was part of a larger movement to elevate the quality of the teaching profession. Officials thought at the time that a more rigorous test of reading and writing should be part of that mix.

But literacy tests for teachers got their start in a different era, said Linda Darling-Hammond, a leading national education researcher who now runs an education policy think tank. They were originally implemented in the 1980s when there were fewer hurdles to entering the teaching profession, she said.

“That might have made sense at that time in those places,” Darling-Hammond said, but added there is little evidence today that literacy tests are a good way to screen for effective teachers. There’s also no widespread concern, she said, that illiterate teachers are entering the profession.

“I think at this point, there is not strong evidence about that,” she said.

Ken Lindblom, dean of the School of Professional Development at Stony Brook University, who has taught prospective teachers, agreed that the focus on literacy is misplaced.

“It’s simply not the case that we have all these teachers … and they’re illiterate and we need to stop,” Lindblom said. “This is a false conundrum that we have invented.”

Dylan Roth, who is studying to become a teacher in a graduate program at Queens College, said he felt “insulted” by news coverage suggesting an epidemic of teacher illiteracy. “They speak of the ALST as if it were the line in the sand keeping horridly illiterate and unqualified teachers out of the classroom,” he said. “Yet besides brief mentions of teachers unions [in the articles], there is no virtually no input from teachers themselves who have gone through the process of certification,” he said.

Roth pointed out that the test’s fee (more than $100) poses a burden for aspiring teachers already paying for seminars, textbooks, tuition and more. Meanwhile, he said, the test is unnecessary when similar questions could simply be added to one of the three other certification tests, a proposal the state has offered.

Still, some say this conversation is about more than just a test — it’s about how the state can build a superior teacher workforce. Ian Rosenblum, executive director of the Education Trust-NY pointed to a 2007 study that found recruiting teachers with stronger certification status or SAT scores could improve student achievement.

“Research shows that having teachers with stronger academic skills makes a meaningful difference in student outcomes, and that is why we believed that maintaining the ALST … is important for equity,” Rosenblum said.

Daniel Weisberg, CEO at TNTP, an organization focused on creating more effective teachers, says the best way to attract high-quality teachers isn’t a tough literacy test. He thinks the emphasis should be on more teacher observation instead.

But he said, over the years, he has seen some prospective educators who want to become teachers even though they lack basic reading and writing skills. In order to avoid certifying those teachers, state officials could create a more narrow test of basic skills, he said.

“What you need is a surgical tool, not a chainsaw,” Weisberg said. “With a lot of these certification exams right now … they end up being a chainsaw, not a surgical tool.”

State Education Department officials plan to add a long reading and writing requirement to the Educating All Students Test, a change that is still being reviewed. They could not yet say whether a student who failed a new literacy portion of another exam could still become a teacher. According to a state education official, the test is expected to include the new literacy portions by January 2018.

The other certification tests already involve reading and writing. The edTPA, a performance-based assessment that asks students to videotape a lesson, requires them to write about their teaching practice. The exams require writing, but the edTPA handbook says the rubrics “do not address the quality of your writing,” and does not penalize test-takers for grammar and spelling errors, though it suggests the ability to effectively communicate is critical.

The other exams include content questions and some questions that require written responses. Supporters of eliminating the literacy test argue that even though prospective teachers are not given a writing score, literacy is embedded in the exams.

The edTPA “requires teacher candidates to organize their arguments, to logically sequence claims,” said Jamie Dangler, vice president for academics at United University Professions, which represents SUNY employees and who co-chaired the state’s edTPA task force. “That’s how you assess literacy. It’s the ability to write, but it’s more then that.”

Stephen Sigmund, executive director of High Achievement New York, a coalition of groups that promote rigorous standards, isn’t convinced. Literacy is crucial to teaching and should be assessed separately, he said. And while the state may include more literacy questions in a different exam, it’s a mistake to eliminate the test without having a fully developed alternative, he said.

“I don’t know enough about the specifics of the test but I take the [State Education] Department and the Regents’ word for it that they think there was a flawed test,” Sigmund said. “So fine, if there are problems with the test, fix the test.”