In a stark reversal, Indiana lawmakers may decouple teacher evaluations from test scores

Indiana lawmakers may soon stop requiring students’ test scores in teacher evaluations, a move that would mark a significant shift away from the state’s tough accountability era.

A bill that would remove the requirement garnered support from Republican leaders, unanimously passing through the Indiana House last month.

It’s a surprising pivot for the state’s Republican party, which once was aggressively reform-minded. Back in 2011, lawmakers mandated that test scores account for a “significant” portion of teacher evaluations, amid other sweeping education policy changes. But nearly a decade later, enthusiasm for those policies is waning, after a yearslong teacher shortage and ongoing concerns about whether low state test results are an accurate reflection of students’ knowledge.

Growing unrest among Indiana teachers culminated in thousands joining the national Red For Ed movement —  rallying at the statehouse in November to demand greater support for public schools.

“It appears to me that the pressure that has been placed on legislators up until now, and the pressure that came about for Red For Ed… has helped legislators see things from a different perspective,” said Andy Downs, a political scientist from Purdue University Fort Wayne.

Lawmakers have already moved to protect teachers and schools from test scores in the short-term — passing a two-year, hold-harmless exemption on Monday. The move came after just one-third of Indiana’s students passed both the math and English portions of the state’s new ILEARN exam in 2019. The exemption renders schools’ A-F grades essentially meaningless.

Coupled with the State Board of Education’s January vote to return four state takeover schools to their original districts, these changes mark a quiet move away from the ideas that swept the state — and nation — a decade ago.

“Accountability is … an easy place to address a significant concern of teachers without having to do much fiscally,” Downs said.

Some accountability advocates have cautioned state leaders against abandoning standardized test scores. The National Council on Teacher Quality opposed both the hold harmless and the potential change affecting evaluations. The group has said there’s no evidence that ILEARN results fail to accurately reflect what students know. Scores increase the validity of teacher evaluations, the council’s president, Kate Walsh, said in an email statement.

“These measures provide educational leaders and teachers, themselves, with critical information about how and where improvements in teacher practice are necessary to ensure that all students have equitable access to excellent teachers,” the statement said.

Educators, however, argue that test scores aren’t a fair metric by which to judge teacher effectiveness, in part because outside factors, such as poverty and race, have been shown to correlate with student scores.

“I think we get hung up on data,” said Tim McRoberts, associate director of the Indiana Association of School Principals. “We start to worry too much on results and we don’t focus enough on process. The most important thing that goes on in a school everyday is what happens in the classroom.”

Indiana first tied evaluations to test scores during the height of the idea’s popularity, nationally, when schools could receive federal dollars for enacting policies favored by the Obama administration, including linking test scores and evaluations.

Using the objective measure was meant to more accurately distinguish between effective and ineffective teachers. But a 2017 study found that the majority of teachers nationwide are still rated effective or better. The number of states requiring that test scores be factored into evaluations has slowly fallen, reaching 34 last year after peaking at 43 in 2015.

In Indiana, districts were left to decide how to implement the vague requirement, so how teachers are evaluated currently depends on where they work. Most districts have made test scores account for around 10% of evaluations, McRoberts said. Teachers whose grade or subject isn’t directly tied to the state test are often evaluated based on their schools’ scores.

“Maybe that doesn’t make as much sense as it seemed to 20 years ago,” Republican House Speaker Brian Bosma said in November.

The decision is high-stakes for teachers, whose pay is tied to whether or not they earn a top rating. If passed, districts could create evaluation templates that are largely based on observations from principals and how teachers progress toward meeting their personal goals for the year.

“I am excited that passage of this bill acknowledges that student knowledge is demonstrated in a number of different ways,” Rep. Tony Cook, R-Cicero, said during his testimony in January. “And measuring teacher effectiveness based on students’ performance on a single exam is not in their best interest.”

The teacher evaluation bill, filed by Cook next goes to the Senate.