Gov. Chris Christie’s argument that at least 50 percent of public school teacher evaluations can be tied to student test score improvement was questioned Wednesday by the leader of the statewide teachers’ union who said leading educational researchers say the idea of evaluating, paying, and even firing teachers based on their ability to raise student test scores is fraught with problems.
“We believe student test scores have a place in the evaluation process,” New Jersey Education Association President Barbara Keshishian said, “but we also agree with highly regarded researchers that they should not play a determining role in high-stakes personnel decisions. There are a lot of flashing yellow lights suggesting policymakers should proceed with caution before putting too much emphasis on test score improvement.”
In February, state Acting Education Commissioner Christopher Cerf announced a five-point plan that would eliminate teacher tenure based on years of service and replace it with an evaluation system that would reward teachers for good student performance and working in at-risk schools.
Teachers would be evaluated and paid using a new rating system based, in part, on how their students perform on tests.
Meanwhile, EQuATE, a group of New Jersey educators formed in response to Christie and Christopher’s proposal to provide teacher tenure based in part on their ability to educate, issued a report Wednesday that offers a series of recommendations on tenure reform and teacher evaluation.
The group is led by Montgomery Schools Superintendent Earl Kim and drew "membership from the research community, parents, boards of education, school leaders, policymakers and teachers who have demonstrated considerable success in improving large complex systems in the public and private sectors."
EQuATE presented its draft recommendations to the Christie education task force last month.
The EQuATE report summarizes current research on teacher evaluation and effectiveness and compares the strengths and weaknesses of state and district plans that have been offered as national models. It cautions against one-size-fits-all state mandates and over-reliance on standardized test scores as the basis for high stakes decisions about tenure, compensation and retention. Instead it recommends that the state conduct several pilot projects that use multiple measures of teacher effectiveness and nationally recognized standards for professional practice.
The group also recommends that districts develop a Peer Assistance and Review (PAR) processes modeled on Montgomery County, Maryland's Professional Growth System. PAR processes are locally negotiated labor/management agreements that provide novice and under-performing teachers with a "supportive yet consequential professional improvement plan." The option would include a waiver from state tenure regulations to implement a locally negotiated evaluation process that could lead to recommendations for remediation, termination or contract renewal.
EQuATE plans to participate in the developing debate around tenure reform and teacher evaluation. The recommendations of the task force, which were due Monday have not been made public.
Keshishian said that on Jan. 19, Educational Testing Service hosted a symposium on “Standardized Tests and Teacher Accountability” at its Princeton campus. A panel of researchers discussed so-called “value-added models,” which Christie believes should play a role in evaluating teachers.
She said the researchers cited a number of concerns:
- Current tests aren’t reliable enough. Value-added models’ scores do little to distinguish the performance of one teacher from another. “Value-added models ask more from current tests than they can provide,” said panel moderator Howard Wainer, a research scientist at the National Board of Medical Examiners. “There is a lot that testing companies could do to address this issue, but it will take time and cost money.”
- Most subjects and grades are not tested. In fact, between 70 and 80 percent of teachers can’t currently be evaluated with test score-based models. It would take millions of dollars to create tests for all subject areas and grades. “It’s hard to imagine how you could use VAM (value-added models) anytime soon in areas that aren’t tested,” Arthur E. Wise, president emeritus of the National Council for Accreditation of Teacher Education, said. “Are we ready to pay for them? What will we have to give up?”
- The use of value-added models would narrow the curriculum. Non-tested subjects would be abandoned in favor of those that have consequences. Schools are already over-emphasizing standardized test-taking and preparation, to the point where “We’ve adopted a strategy that focuses on drilling basic skills and narrows the curriculum,” Richard Rothstein, a research associate at the Economic Policy Institute, said.
- Value-added models ignore factors beyond most teachers’ control. Research shows that only one-third of the variables affecting student achievement occur in school, Rothstein said. The other two-thirds are outside the school. Students from families struggling with poverty, unemployment, homelessness, illness, divorce, abuse, or any other issue will almost certainly score lower on standardized tests.
- Value-added models may make it harder to dismiss bad teachers. Many experts agree that three to five years of data are needed before value-added models’ results could have a reasonable degree of reliability. The reality may lead to the unintended consequence of making it harder to fire clearly underperforming teachers after one or two years in the classroom.
- Missing data is a serious concern. High student mobility rates (students who are not in the same school for the entire year) and/or absenteeism lead to missing test data. “The problem of missing data is even more pernicious,” Henry Braun of Boston College said. “ (Value-added models) doesn’t take into account the fact that responsible professionals will pay attention to the students who are there. In schools with highly mobile populations, a great deal of a teacher’s efforts will be spent on students who aren’t there when the test is given.”
“If the point of VAM is to differentiate among teachers it does a really bad job because most teachers are not really different from the average,” Braun said. “VAM can only identify those teachers at the extremes, but that’s where the statistical uncertainty is the greatest.”
“The best VAM can currently do is identify those teachers who are systematically very high or very low performing after multiple years of observation,” Sean Corcoran, a New York University assistant professor and researcher, said. “Didn’t we already know who these teachers are?”
“Perhaps the deepest concern shared by parents and teachers is that an over-emphasis on improving test scores will lead to even more ‘teaching to the test,’” Keshishian said. “That’s already a problem in public schools, and it’s taking a terrible toll on teacher morale and the quality and depth of instruction.”
Cerf rejected the NJEA’s arguments.
He told The Star-Ledger of Newark, “There is a complete lack of sophistication in what they are saying. They are just fundamentally opposed to having teachers accountable for student learning. And that‘s not in the best interests of children.”
– TOM HESTER SR. NEWJERSEYNEWSROOM.COM