The District of Columbia public school system, one of the first in the country to evaluate teachers using student test scores, announced last week it would suspend the practice while students adjust to new tests based on Common Core standards.
The Obama administration has offered incentives to states to develop more meaningful teacher evaluation systems and to adopt college- and career-ready standards such as Common Core. Since both trends are developing simultaneously, efficiency-hungry states have a tendency to seek common ground between them. But in this case, a marriage of the two goals is creating conflict.
Teachers are concerned about being judged on their students’ performance as they learn to teach under the new standards and the new assessments are rolled out. More than half of states use student test scores as a portion of teacher evaluations, but with nationwide Common Core standards still in the implementation phase, that standard is a moving target. The new standards have met with wide criticism from teachers, parents, and some states, which have refused to adopt them.
Last week, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation joined the two largest teachers’ unions in calling for a temporary halt to evaluating teachers based on Common Core tests. (The foundation has spent more than $200 million implementing Common Core standards nationwide.) Washington D.C. schools Chancellor Kaya Henderson explained her district would do just that, saying it wouldn’t be fair to use the new tests in teacher evaluations until a baseline was established and any complications worked out. Many other states and districts are considering following in the District’s footsteps. New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo introduced a bill last week that would remove test scores from teacher evaluations for two years.
The U.S. Department of Education opposed the Washington district’s decision. “Although we applaud District of Columbia Public Schools (DCPS) for their continued commitment to rigorous evaluation and support for their teachers, we know there are many who looked to DCPS as a pacesetter who will be disappointed with their desire to slow down,” Education Department spokeswoman Raymonde Charles said in an emailed statement.
Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, praised Henderson’s move and said she was troubled by the Education Department’s response, particularly given Education Secretary Arne Duncan’s praise for the District of Columbia schools’ reform policies.
“The federal Department of Education should be applauding this, not thwarting it,” Weingarten said. “When they’re thwarting it, you wonder, ‘What is that about? Is that about learning or is it about measurement for measurement’s sake, or testing for testing’s sake?’”
A study published last month in Educational Evaluation and Policy Analysis raised questions about whether evaluating teachers and making personnel decisions based on test scores had any effect on teacher quality. Some critics believe such high-stakes testing incentivizes cheating. The District of Columbia is one of several jurisdictions that have already weathered cheating scandals.
Henderson said she remains committed to assessing teacher performance based in part on test scores, as the District of Columbia has done since 2009. The nation’s capital has been notably aggressive in firing poorly rated teachers and rewarding top performers with pay raises and bonuses.
“I don’t think there’s a problem with our evaluation system,” Henderson said. “I believe it does what we want it to do. Our teachers have increasingly more and more faith in it. I want them to continue to have faith in it.”