Teachers frustrated over evaluations tied to test results

When English teacher Kelli De Guire watched students scrawl one- or two-sentence responses to essay questions on an important test last semester, feelings of anger and powerlessness crept over her.

The Gordon County high school teacher had seen students blow off tests before, but this time she was taking it personally. For the first time, their scores in her end-of-class test would reflect on her performance. At least half of all teacher evaluations will be based in coming years on test scores unless legislators change the law.

Classroom observations by evaluators and student surveys will make up the rest. The vast majority of teachers were used to glowing reviews from principals, under the prior system. With the results from tests included, job performance ratings have been dropping. De Guire said she got a poor one for the first time in 13 years as a teacher.

“I was angry because it was out of my control,” she said, noting that one student who didn’t take the test seriously told her he planned to drop out. “I was in that red zone solely because of student data, and there was nothing I could do about it,” De Guire said.

She is channeling the frustration of Georgia teachers as school districts anchor potentially career-ending decisions on test results that critics claim do not reflect the many functions they perform, such as providing emotional support and teaching critical thinking. The state’s top education official claims there is a crisis of teacher turnover as a result. Even so, Gov. Nathan Deal and other reform minded figures contend that accountability will save students from getting stuck with bad teachers. They say other professionals are judged on performance-based numbers, so teachers should be, too.

These conflicting visions could collide in the state legislative session. With elections around the corner, lawmakers may be wary of angering thousands of voting teachers who are demanding a change.

Georgia adopted test scores in teacher evaluations three years ago as the federal government was pressuring states to create rating systems that held educators accountable for student performance. In December though, reacting to widespread complaints from teachers and parents that testing had hijacked education, Congress and President Barack Obama undid the 2001 No Child Left Behind Act. The new law doesn’t mandate that teachers be measured by tests results. It also doesn’t forbid it, leaving the decision to state leaders.

Teachers in Georgia have seized on the political moment, hoping to strip down a 2013 state law requiring tests results to be at least 50 percent of each evaluation, with consequences as severe as termination for teachers rated “ineffective.”

Teachers have begun getting their test-based evaluations. However, personnel decisions based on them have been delayed until the state Professional Standards Commission and Department of Education refine and field-test the system, which could take until 2017. “We are going to have to be satisfied the instruments are valid and reliable and ready to be used before we apply them,” said Kelly Henson, the executive secretary of the commission.

Teachers and other education professionals say test scores don’t account for all the obstacles they encounter. They claim the scores aren’t properly adjusted for the distracted student who isn’t fed breakfast or has a single parent who isn’t home to enforce bed and study time. They say tests fail to adjust for unlucky rolls of the dice, such as when a teacher is assigned a chronically misbehaving student who disrupts the classroom, maybe a child with a parent in jail. And they say students’ inability to bubble in correct answers doesn’t account for all the encouragement, emotional support and other meaningful contributions.

Advocates for testing results say the old system based mainly on school principals’ typically positive evaluations let ineptitude and apathy flourish, and left students exposed to lackluster teachers. They say tests results are objective and eliminating them could return schools to a culture of neglect that went unchecked until the No Child law. And they say the test results are handicapped for poverty and other disadvantages by measuring each student’s scores relative to those of peers with similar past performance. Teachers are judged on the relative “growth” in scores over time rather than by the raw scores.

Tests are a regular feature of life these days, said Christy Hovanetz, a testing expert with the Foundation for Excellence in Education, which was started by former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush. People must pass them to drive a car, get into college or get a job. Likewise, parents need “honest” information about the effectiveness of their schools and teachers. “We need to measure student achievement so we know where to focus our resources and efforts,” she said.

William Sander, an economics professor at DePaul University who’s studied the issue, said standardized tests are important in determining teacher quality and effectiveness. Tying tests to the evaluations gives teachers an incentive to ensure “decent” scores, he said. “Students with better teachers learn more.” The only question, he said, is how heavily to weight the results.

There is disagreement over how much weight to give the tests, but there is also a more fundamental question about their reliability.

Nevada has an evaluation system like Georgia's, and a new study by the U.S. Department of Education found inconsistent results. Much of the test-based variation for teachers was attributed to "to random or otherwise unstable fluctuations" in the measurement system, and maybe to the variation in the characteristics of students a teacher happened to get.

Hovanetz said Nevada’s results were less reliable because the state used one year of test results in its evaluation system, as does Georgia. Her group recommends using a three-year average.

Given the lack of consensus among researchers, Georgia legislators will have to figure this out, and political calculation will surely play a role. Teachers are a significant voting bloc, and lawmakers are up for re-election soon after the session ends.

Georgia Superintendent Richard Woods ignited the issue just before this legislative session, reporting a "growing crisis" with more than four out of 10 teachers quitting within five years on the job. A state Department of Education survey chiefly blamed testing. More than 53,000 respondents cited the amount of testing and the use of test scores in evaluations as top reasons for the turnover. Woods told lawmakers at a hearing last week that he thinks the importance of tests in teacher evaluations should be reduced, but he didn't say by what percentage.

Teachers fear their pay could someday be based on test results. Before the legislative session, Deal said he would ask lawmakers for a merit-based teacher pay system and teachers suspected merit would be measured by test-based evaluations. House Speaker David Ralston, a fellow Republican, heard from unhappy teachers at public meetings in his district, and publicly rejected Deal's proposal.

Finally, in his State of the State address in January, Deal tapped the brakes. He asked the General Assembly to take its time studying the recommendations of a school "reform" commission he created last year that proposed developing new "compensation models" for teachers. Teachers are currently paid based on their experience and education rather than a system of "merit."

Some states are watering down the test-based portion of their teacher evaluation systems. Nevada, like Georgia, required at least half a teacher's evaluation to come from student "growth" on tests, but last year the state revised that down to 40 percent. Florida also de-emphasized the tests, reducing them from half to at least a third of teachers' ratings.

Hovanetz's group, the Florida-based Foundation for Excellence in Education, reacted with praise, saying the legislation "improves teacher evaluation laws." Hovanetz said her group had little choice but to support the roll back of tests in the evaluation policy because of public pressure against testing in general. "Our options were to roll back or lose the policy."

Given the upcoming elections in Georgia, the loudest voice may carry the day. In other states, parents have led a charge against testing, staging boycotts and test "opt-out" campaigns and asserting that when teachers are evaluated on the results, they "teach to the test" instead of teaching more broadly.

Georgia parents have not been as vocal as those in other states, but some are frustrated. Carolyn Wood, an Atlanta parent, recently co-founded a group called Public Education Matters Georgia, which has focused on the “overemphasis” on testing.

Wood sent two children through Atlanta Public Schools and has a third at Grady High School. “We lose entire days of instruction because we’re testing them instead of teaching them,” she said.

The test cheating scandal in Atlanta created another concern. There, intense demand for positive results, with the threat of demotion or firing for failure, created a pressure-cooker environment in some schools, especially those with lots of impoverished students. Educators involved in the worst cheating scandal in the nation blamed pressure to raise test scores when they testified in the trial that ended last year, though the targets set by Atlanta Public Schools were often higher than those required by Washington.

Some welcome the accountability test results provide. Alisha T. Morgan co-sponsored House Bill 244, which mandated the state's test-based evaluation system. The former Democratic state representative is now feeling the results of that. She runs a group of charter schools that are bound by the test scores. One fared poorly and could get targeted for takeover by a state-operated school system if Georgians authorize a constitutional amendment in November creating the system.

Morgan, who runs the Ivy Preparatory Academies in Gwinnett and DeKalb counties, said test results are vital feedback and said she has no regrets with the mandate that they factor into at least half of a teacher’s evaluation.

“If you consider any other profession, your evaluation is going to be based on your performance,” she said. “So we have to measure these things. I don’t know a job more important than teaching.”