course correction

Nixing new tests, districts overhaul teacher evaluation plans

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Chancellor Dennis Walcott spoke to city educators about new teacher evaluations over the summer. Across the state, districts are revising their evaluation plans, often as a reaction to the testing required by their first stabs at adopting the state’s rules.

Nearly 20 percent of school districts across the state have changed their teacher evaluation plans since adoption — with an increasing number cutting back on tests associated with evaluations.

Since January, the State Education Department has approved revised plans for more than 130 districts out of nearly 700 statewide, according to a spokesman. More than half of the changes have come this school year, and more districts are in the process of revising their plans ahead of a March deadline, the spokesman said.

The state isn’t yet tallying how plans have been altered, but a review of plans posted online reveals that while some of the changes are only minor wording tweaks, many others reflect a trend toward nixing tests. Interviews with teachers, union officials, and district officials from across the state confirm the trend.

The state’s new teacher evaluation rules require that 40 percent of teachers’ annual ratings be based on their students’ performance. Many districts initially opted to test students at the beginning and end of the year to measure student growth, in addition to administering state reading and math tests. But now, having experienced the burden of testing all students in all subjects, some are taking advantage of a provision in the rules to increase the weight of state reading and math test scores.

Their changes, which local teachers unions must accept, roll back a major compromise about how student growth is measured. They also portend possible teacher evaluation changes for New York City, where the testing burden has been lighter but has still garnered criticism from parents, educators, and Mayor-elect Bill de Blasio.

“Contagious” changes

In most districts across the state, one of the first results of new teacher evaluation systems last year affected students most of all.

“They came to school and took a bunch of tests,” said Adele Bovard, superintendent of the 9,000-student Webster Central School District outside Rochester. “It was a tough way to start off the school year for our students.”

Bovard estimated that the district developed more than 100 new tests for its 2012-2013 evaluations. Other districts developed dozens of their own tests or shelled out local funds to buy tests from third-party vendors.

This year, Webster did away with all of its new tests. “We are a much happier district because of this change,” Bovard told lawmakers earlier this year.

The changes sought by upstate districts have been contagious. Bovard was invited to present Webster’s new model to the teachers union in nearby Rochester, a school district of 30,000 students. Union President Adam Urbanski liked the model so much that he signed off on the changes in the middle of this school year.

“It didn’t take a lot of convincing,” Urbanski said of the new plan, which was approved Nov. 22. “Because at the very least, no matter how it worked out, teachers and students were spared needless testing.”

Unintended consequences of local control

The new tests were either bought or developed in order to comply with the state’s teacher evaluation law, which mandates that one measure of student growth is set by the state and another is set locally. The distinction was once a major source of disagreement between the New York State United Teachers union and Gov. Andrew Cuomo, who wanted the state to retain control of how student learning was measured in evaluations. NYSUT successfully argued in court that some local control would lead to a stronger evaluation system, leading to the current arrangement.

The union wanted assessments that educators tend to prefer, such as portfolios, to count for the local portion of the evaluations. But to accommodate a tight implementation schedule, many districts simply bought or developed tests for each grade and subject.

“I’m not going to lie, a lot of us took the easy way out and took the third-party test provider because there was a very tight timeline,” said Patrick Michel, who runs a group of 15 small school districts outside Albany.

After a year of giving the tests a try, however, districts are saying they were a mistake — at least for now. “Last year we got lots of feedback around there being too much standardized testing for the local part of evaluations,” said Michel, whose districts began cutting out tests this school year.

“You don’t know what you don’t know,” said Anita Murphy, Rochester’s deputy superintendent.

An increased role for state tests

To replace the tests, many districts are turning to a provision in the evaluation law that allows districts to use state test scores for the local growth measure as long as the scores are used in a different way from the state’s measure.

For example, the rules allow districts to evaluate groups of teachers based on the performance of all students in the school on either the math or English state tests. In order to set student benchmarks at the beginning of the year, the rules also allow districts to swap out pre-assessments for “historical data,” which is compiled from academic results in previous school years. State tests at the end of the year then may take the place of post-assessments.

The trend back toward a reliance on state tests has some of Cuomo’s allies crowing that the governor was right all along to argue that student growth should be measured according to state tests.

“Sometimes it turns out the grass under your feet was actually greener than you thought,” said Joe Williams, executive director of Democrats for Education Reform.

Williams said the state union could very easily help schools in districts that haven’t cut back on testing by agreeing to allow state test scores to count more. “If NYSUT wants fewer tests they should encourage it through bargaining,” he said.

NYSUT spokesman Carl Korn called the criticism “incredibly disingenuous” and said it is up to local unions to negotiate the kinds of changes they want to see in their districts.

“We’ve always said our locals are autonomous,” Korn said, adding, “We’ve always supported authentic assessments as better indicators of student growth than standardized bubble tests.”

A smaller shift for New York City

In New York City, the testing burden is less extreme than some other districts’. When State Education Commissioner John King imposed a plan for city schools in June, nearly a year after other districts had begun implementing their plans, his rules provided more ways to measure student learning than just tests.

On top of that, the city has taken steps to shield schools from being required to administer a new set of tests while they focus on other parts of implementation. City officials had wanted to make locally developed tests part of a menu of options for schools, but withheld some when they realized that King would require them in certain instances.  (That decision has had consequences of its own.)

Some performance assessments are being used and their administration, however constrained, are still causing headaches. Schools recently wrapped up grading the tests tied to the assessments, which have stirred high-profile protests  and boycotts from parentsteachers and students.

“The biggest issue is that the testing is an arduous process,” said Gary Nusser, an assistant principal at M.S. 88 in Brooklyn, whose 1,200 students each took two pre-assessments each this year, one in science and one in social studies.

Even as they have sought to reduce tests, current officials have also defended using “pre-tests” as part of the performance assessment process.

“Yes, students do the pre-[assessments] and the post-[assessments] and that’s part of something that you do for evaluating teachers,” Chancellor Dennis Walcott said last week at City Council hearing on testing policies. “There’s nothing wrong with that.”

Nusser said the Department of Education regularly asks him for feedback about the evaluations, and he said he hopes the scoring issues are considered in any future changes.

That’s a distinct possibility. De Blasio has said he wants to “put the standardized testing machine in reverse,” and further changes to reduce testing related to teacher evaluations could be on the table when he takes office next month. UFT President Michael Mulgrew said recently that one of his first priorities after de Blasio becomes mayor is renegotiating the city’s evaluation system — just hours after praising a group of schools that administer almost no state tests at all.

Gold standard teachers

Tennessee adds nationally certified teachers but continues to trail in the South

PHOTO: Ruma Kumar/Chalkbeat

Twenty Tennessee educators have earned a national certification that’s considered the profession’s highest mark of achievement, although the state continues to lag in the South in growing that community.

The state Department of Education on Tuesday released the list of new educators designated as National Board Certified Teachers.

Their addition brings Tennessee’s number of NBCT educators to more than 700, with another 63 pursuing certification. By comparison, Kentucky has 3,600, Virginia 3,400, and Georgia 2,600.

“We know that teachers are the biggest factor in the success of our students, and it is an honor to celebrate educators who are helping their students grow, while serving as an example of what it means to be a lifelong learner,” Commissioner Candice McQueen said in a statement.

Nationally, 5,470 teachers earned the designation in 2016-17, raising the total to more than 118,000 through the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards. The certification takes from one to three years to complete and includes a performance-based peer-review process. Successful candidates must demonstrate a proven impact on student learning and achievement.

In Tennessee, at least 36 school districts offer at least one type of incentive for achieving the certification. The most common is a salary bonus.

North Carolina continues to lead the nation in certification, with 616 more teachers gaining the endorsement last month from the Arlington, Va.-based organization.

Earning their certification in Tennessee were:

  • John Bourn, Franklin Special School District
  • Christy Brawner, Shelby County Schools
  • James Campbell, Metro Nashville Public Schools
  • Kimberly Coyle, Sumner County Schools
  • Suzanne Edwards, Williamson County Schools
  • Anastasia Fredericksen, Metro Nashville Public Schools
  • Theresa Fuller, Kingsport City Schools
  • Amber Hartzler, Clarksville-Montgomery County School System
  • Jennifer Helm, Williamson County Schools
  • Deborah Higdon, Franklin Special School District
  • Karen Hummer, Franklin Special School District
  • Heather Meston, Metro Nashville Public Schools
  • Melissa Miller, Franklin Special School District
  • Kelsey Peace, Sumner County Schools
  • Lindsey Pellegrin, Franklin Special School District
  • Andrea Reeder, Williamson County Schools
  • Jordan Sims, Metro Nashville Public Schools
  • Susanna Singleton, Williamson County Schools
  • Melissa Stugart, Metro Nashville Public Schools
  • Drew Wilkerson, Franklin Special School District

To learn more, visit the website of the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards.

Recap

Five takeaways from Chalkbeat’s legislative preview discussion with lawmakers

Colorado lawmakers at Chalkbeat's 2018 legislative preview event. (Photo by Yesenia Robles, Chalkbeat)

Less than a week before legislators head back to the state Capitol, four lawmakers who work on education issues shared their thoughts at a forum Thursday morning as they prepare bills to introduce this session.

The event, hosted by Chalkbeat, featured four panelists: state Sen. Rachel Zenzinger, an Arvada Democrat; state Sen. Kevin Priola, a Henderson Republican; state Rep. Barbara McLachlan, a Durango Democrat; and state Rep. Paul Lundeen, a Monument Republican.

Here are five quick takeaways from the discussion:

On the teacher shortage issue: No minimum wage for teachers
Legislators lauded the state-prepared report on how the teacher shortage is playing out in Colorado, but said there are still many ways for them to take those suggestions to change laws.

The four panelists discussed how pay, principal leadership, and accountability rules affect teachers.

“Is it absolutely imperative that we evaluate excellent teachers every single year, or not?” Zenzinger asked.

All four panelists said there is no appetite for setting a minimum wage for teachers. There may still be other ways to talk about increasing pay, however.

Lundeen said he would like to see increased flexibility at the school level and a reduction in unfunded mandates that steer money away from teacher pay.

In discussing pension reforms, he also noted that reforming the state’s pension system is important to do soon because while current teachers need a raise, money from the districts is increasingly going to teachers who already retired.

On school funding: Agreement that a lot needs to change, but it’s early in the process
Lawmakers discussed various inequities in the system and McLachlan highlighted disparities for rural communities.

Last year, lawmakers created an interim legislative committee to study how the state funds its schools and recommend changes. Two panelists, Zenzinger and Lundeen, are on the committee.

Zenzinger said that the group is looking at many aspects of school funding, but that she wants to go back to the basics.

“To me it’s a little frustrating we just kind of made an assumption that the base amount is adequate,” she said. “How did we come to that base amount in the first place?”

Lundeen said the discussions first have to be around values.

“We are just now approaching the difficult conversations we need to have around our values,” he said. “What do we care about? Is stability more important than innovation or not?”

On the state’s READ Act: It’s still causing problems
Zenzinger said some teachers who have students flagged for reading problems don’t have help from their schools or districts to better teach students to read.

She said — and McLachlan agreed — that the system needs to be evaluated to see what’s working and what’s not.

“I agree there needs to be tweaks,” Priola said. “We can’t throw the baby out with the bathwater.”

On funding kindergarten: One possible solution would be to decrease funding for some high school students
Priola said a bill he’s working on would increase the amount of money districts get for kindergarten students so they may expand full-day kindergarten classrooms. To make the bill more likely to survive, he said, the bill would not require new money because it would also decrease the amount of funding districts get for high school students if they are no longer attending school full-time.

Schools would still qualify for full funding for students not attending full-time if it’s because they are enrolled in college classes through concurrent enrollment programs, he said.

“That’s our hope to keep the bill revenue neutral, but to provide those structural changes to encourage better outcomes, and discourage outcomes that are, in my opinion and others’, not the best use of our resources,” Priola said.

On accountability: “You can’t legislate everything”
An Aurora high school teacher asked lawmakers how students and parents might be held accountable for test scores. She said, as a teacher, she is held accountable for the test scores of students who sleep during tests because they, or their parents, don’t take the tests seriously.

Lawmakers said that’s an issue of culture that needs to change, but can’t be legislated.

“At the end of the day it still comes down to students and parents caring,” Priola said.

Said Zenzinger: “You can’t legislate everything.”

You can watch a Facebook Live recording of the discussion here: