Evaluating Georgia’s teachers, how much do test scores matter?

I’ve never fretted over whether my kids attended class in a trailer or a state-of-the-art classroom. If they had a great teacher in front of them, I didn’t mind if they learned in a closet.

Because if you look at the research on what impacts learning most within the schoolhouse, it’s teacher quality. That’s why many state are struggling with how to recognize and reward effective teaching and inspire more of it.

One of the challenges is quantifying what the teacher contributes to a child’s achievement. It is not as simple as looking at end-of-the-year test scores. For example, we all understand students have to be in class to learn. Yet, Georgia law says test scores count if students have been present 65 percent of the time. That means students can miss 63 days in a 180-day school calendar, and their teachers will still be held accountable for their performance on state exams.

Acknowledging that unfairness, the Legislature is considering raising the threshold; students must be in school for 80 to 90 percent of the year for their test scores to influence teacher ratings.

Lawmakers also seem willing to address teacher complaints that test scores now control too much of their ratings. Under Georgia’s current Teacher Keys Effectiveness System or TKES, test scores count for half of a teacher’s evaluation. Even the U.S. Department of Education has reversed itself on this issue, warning against distilling teacher effectiveness to a single standardized test score.

Senate Education Chairman Lindsey Tippins of Marietta lowers the weight of test scores to 30 percent in his bill, Senate Bill 364. The bill also reduces the number of state-mandated tests given to Georgia’s 1.7 million students

SB 364 passed the Georgia Senate unanimously and was reviewed last week by the House Education Committee, which will hear public testimony on the bill Wednesday. Much of the Senate bill echoes House Bill 1061 by Rep. Tom Dickson, R-Cohutta, a member of the House Ed Committee and a former teacher, principal and superintendent.

With today’s accountability fervor, Dickson said test scores must play some part in a teacher’s review. But how much of a part, he said, is up for debate. “Test data is important; we need to look at it, but that is the least important thing we do,” he said. “Test data is going to show up there but I am more concerned with how can we improve the teacher.”

Starting out in the classroom, Dickson said he had to figure out whether the goal of student discipline was to punish behavior or correct it. He opted for the latter, saying that’s what evaluations should also do — correct rather than punish. “Is it solely to get rid of somebody who is not doing what I think they ought to be doing,” he said, “or is it about improving instruction and leadership?”

Dickson and Tippins both want to ease the rules on how often principals have to go into classrooms and observe teachers, now set by law at six times a year.

“Every teacher doesn’t need the same amount of observation,” said Dickson. “If you have an outstanding teacher you have seen performing for years, it isn’t necessary to spend six full observations in her classroom. For teachers performing at exemplary or proficient, three observations is an acceptable number, rather than six. Personally, for some of the top teachers, one formal observation is probably sufficient.”

An overlooked but critical component of observations is how well trained principals are to evaluate teachers. As one teacher complained to me, “As some teachers and legislators celebrate a new system for evaluating us teachers, I have to wonder why this is such a good thing when there is absolutely no oversight of these evaluations. In this third year of TKES, I have yet to have the required number of observations.”

The majority of teachers want to improve, said Dickson, but Georgia hasn’t worked hard enough to ensure principals can assess good classroom instruction and then use their observations to help the teacher. “If we do a good job with that,” said Dickson, “it will take care of a lot of other problems we have.”