• Teachers call move ‘unfair’: cite ‘huge variability and opinions’
By Jenny Neyman
A controversial move by the Alaska State Board of Education last week to incorporate student performance into teachers’ job evaluations has educators bristling at what feels to them to be an attempt to fit unstandardizable qualities into a standardized system of evaluation.
There are many influences on how a student performs that are out of a teacher’s control, including home life, health, whether they got a good night’s sleep, whether they ate breakfast, etc.
Evaluating a teacher’s performance in part based on how students perform on standardized testing is unfair, said Wayne Floyd, a 30-plus-year teacher at Nikiski North Star Elementary, and one of more than 900 people who submitted comments on the state board proposal.
“The student population is a moving target that’s never the same from year to year,” Floyd said. “It’s not something that can be predicted, just based on the dynamics of each year’s class.”
The new rule stipulates that by the 2015-16 school year, 20 percent of a teacher’s assessment will be based on student performance, increasing to 50 percent of the evaluation by 2018-19.
The standardized test piece is particularly worrisome, given debate over the accuracy of gauging student performance through that approach.
“Research has shown that written tests only measure a certain percentage. Maybe about 40 percent of the student population can be measured accurately that way,” Floyd explained. “There are other things that need to come into play addressing the other areas of learning. Now you’re running into huge variability and opinions. That’s the problem with humanities — they’ve tried to make it scientific for years and there’s always that human element that throws science out of the window at times.”
Floyd is not opposed to the idea of holding teachers accountable for the achievement of their students, but wants to see it done in a way that is reasonable and takes into account the reality that student performance hinges on more than just teacher effectiveness.
“It’s fine that we’re pushing for improvements, but it needs to be fair,” Floyd said. “If it’s going to be a fair system, it needs to be based on factors that are predictable and measurable, and in most cases that’s not going to happen year after year.”
LaDawn Druce, president of the Kenai Peninsula Education Association, testified in opposition of the proposal to the state board of education in Anchorage.
Druce said she is concerned new teachers will be unfairly evaluated in the new state system, arguing that they shouldn’t be expected to rate above basic until they’ve had a few years under their feet. The Kenai Peninsula Borough School District revamped its teacher evaluation system about three years ago to incorporate Charlotte Danielson’s “Framework for Teaching” model. Teachers are rated unsatisfactory, basic, proficient or exemplary in four areas: planning and preparation, classroom environment, instruction and professional responsibilities.
Floyd also endorsed the KPBSD model, saying it has already demonstrated an impact on the quality of teaching in the district. Druce said that, as a 30-year teacher, Floyd should be expected to perform at a higher level than a first-year educator, but state standards don’t seem to allow for that growth in new teachers.
“We do recognize teachers have to be more than basic, but they don’t have to be more than basic if they’re just starting out and learning. The state is basically saying, ‘No, everyone has to be proficient right off the bat.’ That’s not a growth model,” she said.
Druce said she is frustrated with how the decision came about. The proposal went out to public comment first with the figure that 20 percent of teacher evaluations will be based on student performance data. A newly revised proposal came out at the beginning of last week which incorporated Gov. Sean Parnell’s request that the percentage be raised to 50. The proposal with that revision didn’t go back through the public comment period and the change wasn’t well noticed, Druce said.
“It’s just very frustrating to know they had that many people comment and they changed it again at the last minute without giving public notice of it. I think that’s a big concern for a lot of people that they’re not going to let people weigh in on it after it changed from 20 percent up to 50 percent. The process of that was discouraging,” she said.
KPBSD Superintendent Steve Atwater also testified to the state board of education, but had a more moderate take on the change. KPBSD has already been heading in the direction the new state regs are going, so it’s more a matter of aligning the district’s progress to the state’s direction, rather than inventing a whole new wheel.
“We’re actually in really good shape that way, and the state looks to us as being the leader,” Atwater said. “Inside of the regs are the criteria that a teacher is either unsatisfactory, basic, proficient or exemplary, and those already exist for us. We’ve got that piece in place. What we don’t have in place is the student learning component and we have started working on that.”
The state regulation stipulates that a district can choose among four ways to measure student achievement. One must be standardized statewide, but each district can determine the other three.
As part of its curriculum development process, the district is building quarterly assessments into each subject area. For instance, students will write on a prompt at the beginning of a quarter, and again at the end of a quarter. The amount of progress shown on those assessments could be used in teacher evaluations.
And the assessments don’t have to be paper-and-pencil tests, in the traditional sense. It could be that students give a presentation to show proficiency of what they’ve been learning, or successfully conduct a science experiment, or be able to run a certain distance in a certain time frame. The goal is that the assessments fit in with the curriculum as it’s being taught. At the same time, the curriculum is being designed to meet standards outside of just the district.
This is the first time the district has built quarterly assessments into the curriculum and that process takes time. The committee leading the effort started out last year tackling one content area a year.
“But now you have to have these in place for 2015-16, which means we will have to devote a lot of time and energy to every content area,” he said.
Atwater requested the state provide financial support to districts in order to make this change. So far, no fiscal note is attached to the regulation revision.
Druce also requests state support to come up with assessments that will be incorporated into curriculum on which student progress can be measured, and teachers then evaluated.
“This stuff doesn’t happen overnight, to do it right,” Druce said.
Atwater was less bothered by the mechanism linking teacher evaluations to student performance via a standardized test, since each district can determine the other three assessment methods on which to evaluate teachers.
He said he didn’t want to diminish the understanding that there are variables that affect student learning over which teachers don’t have control, but he is generally in agreement with the idea of linking student performance with teacher performance.
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