DeKalb teachers: Test scores alone don’t show principals’ effectiveness

A group of DeKalb County teachers wore shirts to the school board meeting this week supporting Panola Way Elementary School principal Ethan Suber, one of the nine DeKalb principals reassigned. MARLON A. WALKER/AJC

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A group of DeKalb County teachers wore shirts to the school board meeting this week supporting Panola Way Elementary School principal Ethan Suber, one of the nine DeKalb principals reassigned. MARLON A. WALKER/AJC

The numbers don’t tell the story, teachers said.

Dozens of teachers showed up to Monday's DeKalb County Board of Education meeting to support several principals told last week they were being reassigned for the upcoming school year. Their comments addressed the measurements used by Superintendent Steve Green — primarily College and Career Readiness Performance Index scores — and how those scores don't show the work being done in the schoolhouse to improve student outcomes.

“Consider where these kids come from,” said Ernestine Jones, a fifth-grade social studies teacher at Panola Way Elementary School, whose principal, Ethan Suber, was among those reassigned. “They’re not the kids coming from the neighborhoods that have everything. They come from single-parent homes. They’re being abused, molested. They’re coming to school hungry. A lot of times, their mind’s not on passing this test.”

Suber was among nine principals who were told they would not be returning to their schools for the 2017-2018 school year. Students are thriving under his leadership, Jones said. But it’s not playing out that way in test scores.

“He’s caring, compassionate,” she said. “He loves the children. He’s really dedicated to the staff.”

Those against using standardized test scores to measure teacher ability say the tests do not adequately judge the impact of variables including socioeconomic background and other homelife factors.

Green said the tests were used because they gave clear indicators on how the school performed over time. Other factors were taken into account, including “Beating the Odds” goals, which factor in demographic, socioeconomic, ethnicity and mobility figures.

“That’s why ‘Beating the Odds’ factors into that — to recognize the variables that sort of neutralize,” he said. “We tried as much as we could to look at where progress was being made.”

The move comes near the end of Green's second year leading the district. In that time he's established himself as an advocate of local districts leading the way in school turnaround efforts, often voicing his discontent as Gov. Nathan Deal sought an independent school district for the state's failing schools.

But test scores across the district have largely been stagnant, with few success stories among the mix as schools work their way off lists of low-performing schools.

Temperance Neal, who teaches kindergarten at Flat Rock Elementary School, said her principal, Zack Phillips, is usually the first person in the building and the last to leave. He’s pushed leadership training for his teachers and established a teamwork dynamic that fosters success. She said the majority of her students met or exceeded annual proficiency benchmarks.

“It speaks to the work he’s doing,” she told the school board Monday. “The positive success the students are having under his leadership is because of the rigor he puts on teachers to deliver.”

Martin West, editor-in-chief of EdNext, an education policy publication, said proponents for using test scores for evaluation purposes could argue that the results suggest work needs to be done.

“A defender of using a level-based approach would say … what those scores are telling us is that the kids are not prepared to succeed in college,” said West, also an associate professor at Harvard University’s Graduate School of Education. “We want to change that situation and the leadership hasn’t been able to get that job done, and we’re going to try and find someone who will. That may be unfair for the principal who was put in this challenging situation, but we’re more concerned with being fair to the students and we’re going to look somewhere else for leadership.

“But I think you have to be careful when doing that because there’s no guarantee whoever you get next is going to be anymore successful.”

Robert Schaeffer, public education director for the National Center for Fair and Open Testing, said using test scores to grade principals on their school’s progress do a disservice in ignoring factors outside the school that impact an individual child’s ability to learn.

“From the get-go, this is inappropriate application of data designed for a different purpose,” he said. “The tests weren’t designed to evaluate principals. they were used to evaluate student.”

Schaeffer said DeKalb County School District leaders should worry about what other employees take from the tactic.

“It sends a message … to get your scores up by hook or by crook,” he said. “It’s a kind of climate that helped lead to the (cheating scandal) in Atlanta years ago.”

Elementary school principals reassigned in DeKalb County

Dresden — Dominique Terrell

Flat Rock — Zack Phillips

International Student Center — Terry Segovis

Oak View — Rodney Mallory

Panola Way — Ethan Suber

Rock Chapel — Michael Williamson

Shadow Rock — Karen Williams

Snapfinger — Sylvia Reddick Pilson

Stoneview — Ledra Jemison

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