CT scraps using state test scores to compute teacher ratings

Kyle Constable / CTMirror.org

From left to right, state education board members Estela López and Allan Taylor and Education Commissioner Dianna Wentzell listen to testimony on linking state test scores to teacher evaluations during a public hearing Wednesday.

State test scores will no longer be used in teacher performance evaluations – though, after five years of contentious debate and unremitting delays, the requirement to do so was never actually implemented in the first place.

The state Board of Education voted late Wednesday afternoon to adopt new usage standards for state mastery test data, explicitly prohibiting the use of those test scores in evaluating teacher performance.

The decision, which comes after years of pressure from state teachers unions to abandon the policy, is a dramatic reversal from the board’s stance over the past five years, during which time it has delayed but still supported using state mastery test scores as a criterion in teacher evaluations.

State education board Chairman Allan B. Taylor and Education Commissioner Dianna Wentzell both praised the board’s approval of the plan as an important clarification of the role state tests should play: a goal-setting tool for teachers, not part of a formula for rating an individual teacher’s effectiveness in the classroom.

While state mastery tests – which include the Smarter Balanced assessments, SAT, CMT and CAPT science – are no longer an option, school districts are still required to measure teachers in part on their students’ testing success, which makes up 22.5 percent of the teacher evaluation rating. Now, school districts will have to choose from a number of non-state exams to evaluate teachers in that category.

Six board members voted in favor of the proposal, while two opposed it and one abstained. Some of those who voted for it expressed reservations, which led to more than two hours of questions, discussion and debate.

“We’ve agonized over these questions,” Taylor said. “We’ve made a decision. We’ll see what happens with it.”

Since the board adopted a new teacher evaluation system in 2012, each school district has had the authority to decide whether to include state tests in the portion the teacher rating that is determined by their students’ performance on standardized testing.

But despite the board’s adoption of a requirement that districts actually do so, it never went into effect. The board voted four times to delay implementation of the test-score measurement.

Without that component in place, nearly every teacher in Connecticut has been deemed proficient or better on their evaluations. Last year, just 546 of the state’s nearly 50,000 teachers were rated “below standard” or “developing.”

Michelle Mcloughlin / Wall Street Journal pool photo

Judge Thomas Moukawsher.

That drew the ire of Hartford Superior Court Judge Thomas Moukawsher in his wide-reaching ruling on the constitutionality of Connecticut’s public education funding system last September. He described the evaluation system as “cotton candy in a rainstorm.”

The policy adopted Wednesday prompted the same question from several different board members: Why are SBAC and other state tests adequate in measuring student academic growth and assisting teachers in goal-setting, but incapable of measuring teacher performance?

“I think we know more about some of those other standardized assessments that have been around for a longer time,” said Sarah Barzee, a member of a state panel tasked with revising the teacher evaluations. “We have had SBAC for one year. … So I think we have more to learn.”

“It would be a very different situation if we didn’t have other measures of student growth and development,” Barzee added. “But we do.”

Some of the votes in favor of the proposal were based on the logistical challenges of using SBAC, which does not release its scores until July or even as late as August. Board member William Davenport said that was a “deal-breaker” for him since school administrators cannot feasibly wait until that point in the year for a key piece of teacher evaluation data.

A number of board members remained skeptical even as they voted in favor, and at least one vote in favor was not cast enthusiastically. For board member Malia Sieve, it was a matter of needing to “move forward” on the issue after so many years, she said.

“Do I love the whole thing? No. But can I live with it? Possibly,” Sieve said.

Wednesday’s vote is hardly the end of the years-long saga.

Officials plan to begin revising the details of the plan before the end of this month, and expect to present changes to the board in the months to come. Some board members were uneasy at the prospect of adopting a plan when the advisory panel that had crafted it openly admitted it needed revisiting.

Estela López, vice chairman of the board, said she had “serious concerns” about the panel – the Performance Evaluation Advisory Council (PEAC) – making changes so soon after the board adopted it. López voted against the proposal.

“We’re approving it piecemeal,” López said. “The answers that were given to me were not convincing enough regarding how this is being implemented.”

Wentzell said the board would probably have to wait at least a year if it wanted another round of changes from the advisory panel.

“It might be a decade before you see it,” she said jokingly.

Members of PEAC answer questions from board members.

Shortly after being commissioned in 2010, PEAC developed the initial proposal to incorporate state test scores into teacher evaluations. Its recommendation in February 2012 was hailed by Gov. Dannel P. Malloy as a “milestone.” At the time, it was an important component of Connecticut’s application for a waiver in the No Child Left Behind program.

As membership changed in the years that followed, PEAC shifted its position to recommend delays as it faced mounting pressure from teachers’ unions pushing to abandon the plan. On Wednesday, the PEAC members who presented the latest iteration of the proposal said they opposed using state test scores altogether, a complete departure from the panel’s earlier position.

PEAC’s change of position did not keep fervent advocates of its original proposal from showing up at the meeting to make their case, however. Facing what might be the end of their crusade to use the state exams as part of teacher evaluations, advocates brought impassioned pleas to the board one last time.

“How can we expect SBAC data to be used to set goals but not be used to measure progress toward those goals?” asked Jennifer Alexander, CEO of the Connecticut Coalition for Achievement Now. “We need an evaluation model that truly connects teacher performance evaluations with assessments of student growth towards college and career-ready standards as measured by our state assessments.”

Others spoke in support of the proposal, including a number of school teachers and administrators from across the state.

Sheila Cohen, president of the state’s largest teachers union, the Connecticut Education Association, said Wednesday night the board’s decision “puts the focus back where it belongs: on teaching, learning and student achievement.”

“The new state mastery exam guidelines put the test in its proper context,” Cohen said. “The guidelines define the clear use and purpose of the test and confirm that it should not be used to evaluate teachers.”

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