Evaluation system's start means new tests in many schools

A new year has meant new tests to administer for many city teachers as a much-debated teacher evaluation process kicks off—earning shrugs from some and feelings of exasperation from many others.

The tests include a variety of new assessments created by the city and some third-party standardized tests used to set benchmarks for what students know at the start of the year. End-of-year assessments will be used to determine “growth scores” for teachers, a chunk of the formula used for teacher evaluations in a system hashed out last year.

Teachers say that the additional assessments the evaluation system now requires mean a significant amount of work for them, who in many cases are using two class periods to give the assessments they don’t find valuable.

One eighth-grade English teacher in Brooklyn said that between the tests for teacher evaluations and the unit pre-assessments that her school already requires of teachers, she has used five class periods for assessment in the first three weeks of school — 10 for her special education students.

“We’re really struggling to get in what we really need to teach,” said the teacher, who asked to remain anonymous because she had been told not to criticize the evaluation system publicly. “The time loss is big—I just spent two and a half hours after work just to schedule how we would fit in what we normally would have fit in the first unit.”

Brandon Muccino, principal of P.S. 83 in the Bronx, said that teachers have found the assessments similar to the pre-tests they already give students to prepare for a unit. “To take a benchmark is nothing out of the ordinary, especially writing benchmarks. We’re used to it,” he said, though he admitted that some of the teachers in younger grades were taken aback by having to administer another assessment.

But one seventh grade ELA teacher said that even at her high-performing middle school, the tests were greeted with groans from students and teachers alike.

“The kids were really bored and demoralized. It was sort of like this resigned ‘oh, another test’ attitude,” she said.

Her students took the English performance assessment designed by the city, one of several “measures of student learning” pre-assessments that GothamSchools reviewed. The seventh grade exam asked students to write an argument-based essay about an obituary of a mountain climber and, to that teacher’s amusement, an excerpt of a commencement speech delivered by Mayor Michael Bloomberg.

The exams shared a writing focus: the eighth grade science pre-assessment asked students to write a “testable question” and design an experiment after reading a page of background information, and the eleventh and twelfth grade ELA pre-assessments asked students to develop an argument based on two texts, including an excerpt from Malcolm Gladwell’s “Outliers.”

In addition to spending 90 minutes to administer the performance assessments, schools also had to make time to score them. At some schools, that happened after school; at others, the grading took place during the school day. For some performance assessments, a score must be entered for each part of a rubric—so a teacher inputting data for 60 students’ ninth grade ELA assessments would need to enter seven subscores and an overall score for each essay.

One teacher at a Manhattan high school said the process was so time-consuming that he and his colleagues had been replaced by substitutes for the day so they could score assessments. At another Brooklyn middle school, teachers said they were given two hours of extra pay to grade assessments. State regulations prohibit teachers from grading their own students’ post-assessments, but allow them to grade the pre-assessments, though teachers said some principals did not allow teachers to grade their students’ exams this year.

“Nobody sat down and thought how extensive this work [would be],” one official helping schools implement evaluations said. “We wildly wildly underestimated how much time it’s taking.”

Students’ scores on performance assessments can be used in two ways: as part of the “local” measures of student learning some schools chose to use for 20 percent of teacher evaluation scores, and as part of the “student learning objectives” the state requires for evaluating teachers in non-tested grades and subjects.

Decisions about local measures were made by committees of teachers at each school, which made recommendations to their principals before the school year began about whether to use them or to allow state test scores to count for a full 40 percent of the evaluations. Given the limited choices for local assessments, both options have been criticized for evaluating teachers on subjects they don’t teach—leading to situations like gym teachers focusing on Olympic history.

Johnny Veloz, an eighth grade math teacher at the International School for Liberal Arts in the Bronx, said that decision-making process alone took 10 hours for his school’s committee, and many were still uncertain about their choices.

“Some teachers are concerned about pacing students. If it’s different for state tests and this, what happens?” Veloz asked.

Teachers in those committees needed to decide whether to go with local assessments, then choose among the assessments applicable to teachers in tested and non-tested subjects while keeping in mind that teachers would be evaluated on students’ growth—meaning there is little incentive for teachers to ensure their students do especially well on pre-assessments.

Still, the city defended the class time used for the benchmark tests. “These exercises are real, instructionally-valuable work that schools should be and are doing regularly – encouraging students to read, write, and think critically,” spokesman Devon Puglia said. “By establishing a baseline for each child, schools can more effectively tailor instruction to meet individual students’ needs. The tasks themselves benefit students by requiring critical thinking, while their results help teachers gauge their students’ skills.”

Department of Education officials have conceded that the system’s complications make it less than ideal, but point to the the state’s timeline for implementing the evaluations, which required things to be done quickly. “We are working hard to develop new assessments that would be useful” for teachers, Department of Education chief academic officer Shael Polakow-Suransky said last month.

Willing to share your benchmark testing experience? Email us at tips@gothamschools.org.