Friday, March 7, 2014

Washington State Legislature Considers Tying Test Scores to Teacher and Principal Evaluations

Two bills currently under consideration before the legislature in Olympia, Senate Bill 5880 and House Bill 2800, would mandate the inclusion of state test scores in both teacher and principal evaluations.

These bills were introduced after US Secretary of Education Arne Duncan told Governor Jay Inslee that he would not consider extending a federal waiver currently in place beyond this year if state test scores were not included in teacher and principal evaluations. The current waiver allows Washington schools more control in the way they direct Title I funds and frees them from having to send letters to parents indicating their schools are not meeting the goals NCLB set for them when it was passed.

In other words, Duncan sent a clear message to our state: tie test scores to evaluations OR lose discretion in the way you spend federal money and send home the letters (nearly 100% of WA schools are failing by NCLB standards).

After Duncan's meeting with Inslee, the governor and Washington's state superintendent sponsored HB 2800, which mandates the inclusion of test scores in teacher evaluations beginning with the 2017-2018 school year.

Many Democratic proponents of HB 2800 and SB 5880 argue that this is a necessary measure if we want to avoid losing federal money and sending home loads of letters indicating to parents that our schools are failing. One of my own legislators, Democrat Eric Pettigrew, expressed exactly these sentiments as I followed him down one of the hallways of the legislative building yesterday. In a later meeting with teachers, Democratic Representative Mia Gregerson expressed similar concerns if the bills fail to muster the necessary votes.

It is not accurate that the Title I money would be lost, however. It would be redirected. This seems not to be understood by some lawmakers. The possible consequences of that redirection are debatable.

Dr. Susan Enfield, the superintendent of my school district, Highline, sent out an email to Highline staff yesterday explaining why she was in Olympia lobbying in favor of HB 2800. Among her reasons were: 1) she is concerned with the way the redirection of Title I funds would affect HSD schools; 2) she believes we may lose our Race to the Top grant money (applied for with seven other districts in the surrounding area); and 3) she is concerned that the labeling of so many of our schools as ineffective would be detrimental to the community's perception of the good work we're doing.

I will allow her point 1. She knows better than I how the redirection of funds might affect schools. But I, and many others, take issue with points 2 and 3.

I listened to House Education Committee Chair Sharon Tomiko Santos speak at length with Seattle Education Association President Jonathan Knapp yesterday in the halls of the legislative building. Knapp pointed out that a memorandum of understanding included in the Race to the Top Application that Seattle and Highline were granted last year makes it clear that our access to that money will not be affected by whether test scores are tied to teacher and principal evaluations. Santos asked for those documents, and Knapp promised to supply them. If Knapp is correct, then it would appear that Dr. Enfield has no grounds for concern.

Dr. Enfield's third concern was that letters going out to families informing them that their schools are not meeting AYP would be detrimental to our community. Possibly. But, if these bills fail, those letters will also be going out to nearly every other family in our state with a student in public schools. I, for one, would welcome that. I think it would raise public awareness of a terribly flawed federal law.

When it comes down to it, tying high-stakes tests to teacher evaluations is bad policy. 

In some ways it makes sense that a superintendent would support such a policy. Dr. Enfield is, after all, judged on her ability to raise test scores by the public. The more she can create teacher and principal ownership of that, the more likely she is to succeed in that endeavor. But there are very grave concerns about using tests in such a manner, and a number of other Washington superintendents wrote to oppose the bills.

Lots of research suggests that the results of high-stakes tests may correlate more strongly with a student's zip code and parents' educational background than with the student's knowledge of the subject ostensibly being assessed (see Michael Marder). Importantly, test makers across the country warn that their tools are NOT designed to evaluate teacher effectiveness, much less principal effectiveness.

While many among the public are concerned that poor test results are indicative of an ineffective school, teacher, or principal; I seriously doubt that is always (or even often) the case.

Students perform well or poorly on tests for a variety of reasons. Last week I attended a function at the University of Puget Sound where Bellevue Elementary Teacher Linda Myrick made an excellent point. She noted that some (certainly not all) of her students who fare well on tests have told her that they think some of their performance can be attributed to the extra tutoring their parents paid for them to attend over the weekend. At the same function, University of Washington at Bothell Professor Wayne Au, an expert on standardized tests, said that even he is still unsure that standardized tests are actually measures of learning so much as they are measures of other things.

Moreover, high-stakes tests hurt low-income students the most, exactly those students the accountability movement professes to be attempting to help. At my school (approximately 90% free and reduced), we have seen teaching positions go unfilled for months at a time. Our reputation is not what we would hope, and many of our students are faced with significant life challenges. The first response I received from my staff when I alerted them to the possibility that some of them may soon have test scores compose a part of their evaluations was: "Thank you for the information. And now I want to quit."

Faced with the reality that a) nobody, not even "experts," has discovered a surefire method for improving student test scores and b) this affects teachers' livelihoods; many teachers in low-income schools will be delivered a strong incentive to find a more affluent school to teach in if they want to continue in this profession.

And take it from me - someone who's worked in inner-city DC and the South Bronx - most of the people who work in these kinds of schools in 2014 are among the most dedicated people you could ever hope to work with.

Tying student test scores to teacher and principal evaluations is bad policy.

I will grant there is some room for argument as to whether it's worth swallowing bad policy in exchange for some of the benefits the federal government might offer. But in this case, I believe it is not.

I believe this is a chance for Washington State to make a clear statement to the federal government: You can't bully us into accepting your bad policy - policy you not only have no evidence to show is effective, but policy for which there is tremendous evidence that it is affecting schools in states where it has been swallowed extremely negatively.

So I urge you, Washington State citizens, to use this link to find and contact your legislators regarding this matter. Contact them now, contact them often over the next week, and contact them in different ways with stories of how you fear this will affect our schools negatively.

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