Making the grade

New data show more than half of NYC teachers judged, in part, by test scores they don’t directly affect

PHOTO: Christina Veiga

Just over half of New York City teachers were evaluated in the 2015–16 school year, in part, by tests in subjects or of students they didn’t teach, according to data obtained by Chalkbeat through a public records request.

At 53 percent of city teachers, it’s significant number, but substantially lower than in previous years, possibly thanks to a moratorium placed on using state tests, instituted mid-year.

That figure also highlights a key tension in evaluating all teachers by student achievement, even teachers who work with young students or in subjects like physical education. Being judged by other teachers’ students or subjects has long annoyed some educators and relieved others, who otherwise might have had to administer additional tests.

Supporters say evaluating teachers by group measures — often school-wide scores on standardized tests — helps create a sense of shared mission in a school. But the approach could also push teachers away from working in struggling schools.

“The key point around school-wide measures is that this could serve as a strong disincentive for these teachers in non-tested grades and subjects to stay in lower-performing schools,” said Matthew Steinberg at the University of Pennsylvania, who has studied teacher evaluation systems.

Will Mantell, a spokesperson for the New York City Department of Education, defended the district’s approach.

“Selecting school-wide [or] grade-wide … measures may better measure educators’ practice and support professional development,” he said. “For example, it makes sense for a social studies teacher who emphasizes writing in her classroom to be evaluated partially on an assessment of students’ ELA skills.”

New York’s evaluation system has gone through a number of substantial changes since it was first codified in state law in 2012, part of a nationwide push to connect teacher performance to student test scores, spurred by federal incentives.

Student assessments have comprised anywhere from 40 percent of the evaluation to essentially 50 percent, under a matrix system pushed by Governor Andrew Cuomo in 2015. Most recently, New York stopped using grades 3-8 English and math state tests as part of the system, but teachers must continue to be judged based on some assessment.

States across the country have struggled to evaluate teachers in traditionally non-tested grades and subjects. New York City has created a number of exams — known as performance assessments — in non-tested areas and given schools significant flexibility in which measures are used to judge their teachers.

In the 2015-16 school year, 53 percent of teachers were evaluated by a group metric, meaning one not focused on their subject or students. In the two previous years, the number was much higher — around 85 percent. It’s not clear why there was a substantial drop, but a spokesperson for the city’s education department notes that 2015-16 was an “outlier” due to the moratorium on state tests, instituted mid-year.

In all three years, most teachers were also evaluated by at least one individualized measure targeted to teachers’ grade, subject and students.

Data for the most recent school year are not yet available.

It’s also not clear what percentage of a teacher’s rating was based on group measures, and Mantell said this “varies from teacher to teacher.”

The United Federation of Teachers has pushed to give schools more individual options, including the use of more “authentic” assessments, not based on multiple choice questions.

“Right now, we don’t have enough options, which is why our most recent agreement with the DOE seeks to build more authentic assessments for additional grades and subjects,” said Michael Mulgrew, president of the UFT in a statement.

Group measures offer an alternative to creating exams for each teacher in every grade and subject, which can lead to a proliferation of new tests, though in New York City teachers have often been judged by both group and individual metrics.

The challenge of evaluating teachers in traditionally untested areas is not unique to New York, and a number of states have embraced group or school-wide approaches. An analysis of 32 states, conducted by Steinberg, found that the average teacher in a non-tested grade or subject had about 7 percent of his or her evaluation based on school-wide achievement measures, though this averaged together substantial variation from place to place. Teachers in Tennessee and Florida have sued (unsuccessfully), arguing that it is unfair to evaluate them based on students they didn’t teach.

A more popular option, used in some districts in New York, has been student-learning objectives, in which teachers set goals for students often based on classroom exams. This approach has been praised for helping teachers set specific goals, but criticized as burdensome and easy to manipulate.

Research has found that using school-wide measures of performance tends to bring teachers closer to average performance. An analysis by the Brookings Institution showed that these group measures pulled down ratings of teachers with higher individual ratings at low-performing schools.

new rules

Now that TNReady scores will count less for students, will they even try?

PHOTO: Nicholas Garcia

In the face of a statewide testing debacle, the Tennessee legislature’s hasty edict this week to discount test results has mollified some teachers and parents, but raised more questions about the role of test scores and further eroded the motivation of students, who must labor for about two more weeks on the much-maligned TNReady test.

Thursday’s sweeping measure to allow districts to ignore test results when grading students and to prohibit the use of test scores when determining teacher compensation has left educators and students shrugging their shoulders.

“I’ve gone from ‘oh well, tests are just a part of life’ to ‘this is an egregious waste of time and resources and does not respect the developmental needs of our children,’” said Shelby County parent Tracy O’Connor. For her four children, the testing chaos has “given them the idea that their school system is not particularly competent and the whole thing is a big joke.”

Her son, Alex O’Connor, was even more succinct. “We spend $30 million on tests that don’t work, but we can’t get new textbooks every year?” said the 10th-grader at Central High School. “What’s up with that? I’m sure half of us here could design a better test. It’s like buying a used car for the price of a Lamborghini.”

The legislature’s decision created a new challenge for Tennessee’s Department of Education, which planned to use 2018 TNReady testing data to rate and identify the lowest-performing schools, as required by the federal government. Now, with the test’s reliability under question, state officials say they are determining “additional guidance” to provide districts on how the state will comply with the U.S. Department of Education.

Student test results still will be used to generate a score for each teacher in the Tennessee Value-Added Assessment System, known as TVAAS. Scores will count for 20 percent of teachers’ evaluations, though districts now cannot use the scores for any decisions related to hiring, firing, or compensating teachers.

For students, local school boards will determine how much TNReady scores will count toward final grades — but only up to 15 percent. Several school districts have already expressed serious reservations about the testing data and likely won’t use them in students grades at all. And in previous years, the results didn’t come back in time for districts to incorporate them anyway.

In sum, asked Memphis sophomore Lou Davis, “Why are we doing this anymore when know it won’t count?”

About 650,000 students are supposed to take TNReady this year, with 300,000 of them testing online, according to the state. Each student takes multiple tests. As of Friday, more than  500,000 online tests sessions had been completed.

Even as testing continues, some education leaders worry the exam’s credibility is likely to sink even further, because students might not try, and parents and teachers may not encourage much effort.

“In the immediate term, there’s concern about how seriously people will take the test if they know it’s not going to count,” said Gini Pupo-Walker, head of the Tennessee Educational Equity Coalition and a member of the state’s testing task force. “Will students continue to take the test? Will kids show up? Will parents send their kids to school?” she asked. “Now, there’s the whole question of validity.”

Sara Gast, spokeswoman for the Department of Education, said while the new legislation provides more flexibility for districts in how they use TNReady results, it doesn’t mean that the results don’t matter.

“The results always matter. They provide key feedback on how students are growing and what they are learning, and they provide a big-picture check on how well they are mastering our state academic expectations,” Gast said. “It serves as accountability for the millions of taxpayer dollars that are invested into public education each year.”

Jessica Fogarty, a Tullahoma school board member and parent, says she thinks this year’s testing issues could lead to more parents telling their kids to refuse state tests in the future.

A proponent of opting out of state tests, Fogarty said, “We need to understand that we can choose what our children do or do not suffer through. I hope this debacle showed parents what a waste of time this is — students would gain more through reading a book.”

Because Tennessee has no official opt-out policy, students wanting to opt out must “refuse the test” when their teacher hands it to them.

Jennifer Proseus, a parent of a student at Bartlett High School, said her daughter has opted out of state testing in the past, but started taking the exams this year because she believed it could affect her final grades.

“With college looming in a couple years, she couldn’t afford to get zeroes on her report cards,” Proseus said. But with the test debacle, her daughter might change her mind and just skip the remaining two weeks of testing.

“I even took the online practice TNReady a few years ago and it was terribly confusing to navigate,” Proseus said. “The testing in Tennessee is not transparent — it is almost like it is set up to trick and fail children — and that’s very cruel for a young child to deal with.”

Chalkbeat explains

Four reasons Tennessee likely won’t go back to paper testing

As another wave of online testing problems plagues Tennessee schools, one of the solutions proposed by state legislators — go back to paper exams — is a stretch for a state that has invested millions into electronic exams.

In short, reverting to pencil-and-paper would be akin to ordering iPhone users to go back to flip phones. It almost certainly won’t happen.

Two Memphis-area state lawmakers want to ban the online version of TNReady starting next school year until the state comptroller determines its problems are “fully and completely fixed.” Another lawmaker says local districts should be able to choose between paper and electronic testing.

Their motivation springs from this week’s technical problems with TNReady, just two years after a statewide online collapse prompted Education Commissioner Candice McQueen to cancel most state testing that year.

Despite the frustrations, here are four reasons why it’s unlikely Tennessee will go back to paper testing:

Superintendents think they’ve gone too far to turn back now. Maryville Director of Schools Mike Winstead cautioned against rash decisions in the heat of the moment.

“When things like this happen, it’s easy to overreact,” he told Chalkbeat. “But we’ve come too far. We know that online testing is the future. If we turn back, it will take a long time to get back to where we were.”

School systems and counties have poured millions into infrastructure and devices, added Dale Lynch, executive director of the Tennessee Organization of School Superintendents.

“We don’t want to back up. We want to get it right, though,” he said.

Paper is more time consuming. With online testing, “we can get test materials [and scores] back or to folks much quicker,” McQueen said this week.

Preparing paper tests requires hours of sorting and labeling exams. And if the materials arrive late, like they did for several districts this month because of severe weather at testing company Questar’s printing center in the Northeast, the time crunch is especially stressful.

Granted, a top-notch online system that protects against cheating and hacking could be more expensive than a paper version, said Wayne Camara, an ACT research chair who oversees test security.

“The issue of cost is relative.” he said. Multiple versions of computer tests are necessary to help safeguard against cheating, especially via social media.

“If you’re having to produce 10 or 15 forms of a computer test, most likely it’s not cheaper.”

If Tennessee switches back to paper testing, it will be one of few states nationwide. A recent analysis by John Hopkins School of Education lists 11 states that were still using paper tests in 2016 for elementary students. For middle schools, it was nine states.

Nearly across the board, those states with no experience with online testing did worse in national online testing.


Read more about Tennessee’s most recent performance on the Nation’s Report Card.


There’s security issues with paper, too. The alleged cyber attack on Questar’s data center Tuesday sparked a statewide outcry, but switching back to paper won’t eliminate security issues.

“Both digital- and paper-based testing are certainly susceptible to cheating,” said Camara, the testing cybersecurity expert. “I don’t think anybody would say that there’s a significant reduction of security measures or cheating with computers. It’s just different.”

One of the largest state test cheating scandals happened in Atlanta with paper tests when principals and teachers changed student answers. That’s much harder to do online.

Jacinthia Jones and Marta W. Aldrich contributed to this story.