By Kathy Megan
HARTFORD — A state education advisory council recommended a change Thursday in the teacher evaluation system to ensure that a significant portion of a teacher’s review does not hinge on students’ scores on a single state standardized test.
“We said, over and over again, we never want to evaluate anyone based on a single test score because frankly it makes no sense,” said Joseph Cirasuolo, executive director of the Connecticut Association of School Superintendents and a member of the Performance Evaluation Advisory Council.
After the council meeting Cirasuolo emphasized that the new evaluation system already takes into account factors including observation of teachers in classrooms, lesson plans and other measures of student achievement such as portfolios of work.
But the change recommended Thursday would ensure greater flexibility in the evaluation system and a greater emphasis on assessing a teachers’ performance based on their students’ progress over the course of the year. The State Board of Education, which must approve the change for it to be effective, is likely to consider it on May 7.
Sheila Cohen, president of the Connecticut Education Association and also a member of the advisory council, said the change is “a huge step and it’s long overdue.” Basing the evaluation of a teacher’s or a child’s performance on one test “is absolutely neither reliable, nor valid,” Cohen said. The CEA is the state’s largest teachers union.
The new evaluation system, which took effect this year and was approved by the council and the State Board of Education in 2012, allows for almost a quarter — 22.5 percent — of a teacher’s evaluation to be based on students’ scores on one state standardized test in those grades that take a state test. State standardized test scores are not factored into the performance reviews of teachers in grades for which a state test isn’t given.
In any given year, about half of Connecticut students take one of the state’s standardized tests, which for decades have been Connecticut Mastery Tests for elementary and middle school students in certain grades, and Connecticut Academic Performance tests, taken by high school students in their sophomore year.
But this year, 90 percent of districts switched to new computerized tests developed by the Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium.
The change agreed upon Thursday calls for including in teacher evaluations the results of other standardized tests that help track students’ academic growth across the year.
“What we are trying to say is the key is growth over time,” said Mark Waxenberg, CEA’s executive director and also a member of the council. “The state test can still be part and parcel of the whole context of showing growth over time, but it’s not the score of the state test that is the accountable measure. It’s the growth over time.”
Stephen McKeever, vice president of the state Chapter of the American Federation of Teachers, said, “Students, teachers and even districts — nobody should be judged on whether or not they took a test [on one day] well.”
The council did not specify what those other tests would be but said that would be determined over the next year.
It is unlikely that any state standardized tests scores will be linked to any teacher’s evaluation this year or next as the state transitions to the Smarter Balanced tests. The state has already has been granted a federal waiver that allows districts not to use test scores this year because the new assessment is being tested and is based on new academic standards and new curriculum. The state has applied for the same waiver for next year as well.
“In effect, the use of state test data in evaluations has been suspended for a second year, pending federal approval,” education Commissioner Stefan Pryor said.
Although PEAC members — which include state officials, school administrators, teachers and school board members — all supported the change in the evaluation system its members had crafted two years ago, other education advocates had reservations.
Jeffrey Villar, executive of director of the Connecticut Council for Education Reform, said he is “cautiously optimistic,” and would support a system that evolves to include several interim tests that lead to an end-of-the-year test that sums up students’ achievement.
But, he said, if the system “devolves” into one that relies on “non-statistically valid and reliable forms of assessment” such as portfolio collections of students’ work or “homegrown” tests that might not be “psychometrically” accurate, then “that would greatly hamper the ability to hold teachers accountable, districts accountable … for student learning.”
Jennifer Alexander, chief executive officer of a New Haven-based education reform group called ConnCAN, urged PEAC and the State Board of Education “to proceed with caution — any modifications to the state’s educator evaluation system must ensure that we preserve the link between an educator’s performance review and student achievement growth. Any attempts to undercut or sever this link would move our state backwards and impede our efforts …”
Liz Natale, a West Hartford middle school teacher who has been an outspoken critic of the state’s education reform efforts, said she still opposes plans to link teacher evaluations with student test scores, despite the modification PEAC recommended Thursday.
“It sure doesn’t make me feel a lot more comfortable; it doesn’t make me happier,” Natale said. “I don’t mind standardized tests, but I do mind linking them to teacher performance.” Whether it’s one standardized test or several, she said, she doesn’t support it.
Josh Blanchfield, a Hartford teacher of seventh- and eighth-graders, said he would like to see standardized tests replaced with a more holistic system of evaluating students and teachers.
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