Controversy is mounting over whether the state will require teachers to be evaluated and graded based partly on student test scores, but under pressure from the Freedom of Information Commission, the state is poised to begin releasing some evaluation data to the public.
The state legislature is currently considering a bill, sponsored by 52 of its 187 members, that would override the State Board of Education’s push to link student test scores and teacher evaluations.
In the four years since the state overhauled its teacher evaluation system to include student and parent surveys, unannounced classroom observations, and eventually student test scores, the results of those evaluations have been shrouded in secrecy.
The State Department of Education regularly denied requests from The Connecticut Mirror for aggregate performance data it collects on individual districts and schools. Requests for aggregate state-level data also have been denied.
Education officials said state law was vague about whether such information is exempt from the state’s Freedom of Information Act. Concerned that some data could be tracked back to individual teachers, they also sent guidance on data collection to local school superintendents warning “that even aggregate data, especially when collected at the school level, could become identifiable.”
But the staff of the state’s Freedom of Information Commission has already issued a proposed decision ruling that “aggregate data” should be released. The full commission is scheduled to vote Wednesday on whether to uphold that finding.
“Nothing in either the language or history of [the law] demonstrates that the legislature intended to limit access to public records,” the proposed decision reads. “It is also concluded, moreover, that had the legislature intended to protect aggregate teacher data from disclosure, it could have done so.”
If the state watchdog agency approves the proposed decision, the education department said it plans to begin releasing this data to those who request it and not wait to see if the decision is appealed in Superior Court.
“Transparency makes us stronger and empowers communities, educators and students alike. We are grateful for the clarity this proposed decision brings to this issue and will comply fully with the decision should the commission choose to accept it,” said Abbe Smith, a spokeswoman for the department.
Such release will allow the public to see how teachers in their communities’ schools are rated collectively, though data that would allow someone to see how an individual teacher was rated would still be shielded.
State law was created years ago to forbid the disclosure of individual teachers’ performance, a measure that ensures parents are not able to “teacher shop” and demand highly rated teachers for their children.
Debate and concern over the larger issue, meanwhile, has continued unabated.
Earlier this month, Allan B. Taylor, the chairman of the State Board of Education, said he was drawing “a line in the sand” and that his board, all appointed by the governor, will not vote to further delay linking evaluations to test scores.
Although the board delayed the policy’s implementation yet again in April, Taylor said he would not tolerate any further ones. Teachers should expect to have test scores as a factor in their evaluations beginning with the 2017-18 school year, he said.
“We think there’s nothing to be gained from any further postponement,” said Taylor.
The bill co-sponsored by 52 of the 187 members in the General Assembly may soon take that decision out of his board’s hands, however.
“The State Board of Education is not the state policymakers of the state. That’s the legislature’s job,” said Sen. Gayle Slossberg, the co-chair of the Education Committee. “Nobody has been able to answer the question about why doing this makes sense.”
As the legislature contemplates overriding the state board’s authority, the panel that advises the state board has seemed to reach consensus to relax the state guidelines and allow local educators to determine how much tests should be weighted when being used to grade teachers. No formal recommendation has been made, however, and the group does not plan to meet again until after the legislature has adjourned its regular session.
The state’s teacher evaluation system has been highly controversial since the State Board of Education in 2012 approved requiring school districts to begin factoring student test scores into educator ratings.
In TV and radio ads, the state’s largest teachers’ union has vigorously opposed the requirement that at least 22.5 percent of a teacher’s score be tied to state tests.
Some of the evaluation program’s shortcomings surfaced recently, however, when the attorney general’s office offered the results of evaluations from the last two years as evidence in the ongoing trial challenging the adequacy of the state’s school funding. The evaluation data were introduced as proof that the state’s chronically failing schools are overwhelmingly filled with great teachers.
Data released at trial show that last school year 546 teachers (1 percent of the state’s nearly 50,000 teachers) were evaluated as either “below standard” or “developing,” the two lowest ratings. Nearly identical results occurred in the 2013-14 school year. (See how teachers in your school district fared over the last two school years in the charts below). The vast majority received ratings of “proficient” or “exemplary.”
On Friday, Hartford Superior Court Judge Thomas Moukawsher asked the official from the state education department that oversees teacher evaluations how she knows that including test scores will improve student outcomes.
“What is the value of this?” he asked chief talent officer Sarah Barzee of the new evaluation system.
“That is yet to be seen until we are able to measure precisely growth from point A to point B,” she testified, acknowledging that the department does not know how teachers would have been rated had test scores been included in the previous two years’ ratings. “We believe that it’s an important metric.”
How we got here with teacher evaluations
Correction: This article inaccurately stated how many legislators sponsored the bill referenced. There are 52 legislators that sponsored the legislation.