Georgia Adopts 50% of Teacher Evaluation Based on Test Scores

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution by Jaime Sarrio: 

Hoping to attract and keep top teachers in public schools, Georgia is changing the way educators are hired, paid and rated through a new evaluation system with far greater emphasis on student performance.The changes are spurred by the $400 million Race to the Top grant, a program introduced by the Obama administration to jump-start school reform nationwide. Georgia won the grant in August; in return it pledged to rethink public school policy, including creating a new evaluation system for all teachers. For subjects where students take standardized tests, 50 percent of the teacher’s performance would be based on their test scores. School leaders will also be judged by test scores when the new model rolls out in 26 districts this fall. 

“We strongly believe that the most important thing in a student’s education is the quality of the teacher in the classroom,” said Erin Hames, who will oversee the plan’s implementation as a deputy chief of staff for Gov.-elect Nathan Deal. “The heart of education improvement in Georgia has to be focused on the classroom and classroom teachers.”

Less than 1 percent of Georgia’s 143,000 educators and support staff received “unsatisfactory” ratings on annual performance evaluations in 2008-09, evidence the current system isn’t working, according to state leaders. Evaluations currently take into account classroom observations, job training and interaction with students, but they do not focus enough on student achievement, they say. State law requires that academic gains are a factor in the evaluation process, but it doesn’t specify how or to what degree.Many educators agree that the current evaluation system is imperfect but have reservations about linking pay and performance to test scores. Some also question whether the state can develop and implement a fair system in a short period of time. Under the proposal, the changes will begin in 26 districts that agreed to take part in the Race to the Top grant, and they will gradually extend statewide within five years.

Tim Callahan, spokesman for the 80,000-member Professional Association of Georgia Educators, said the organization is OK with making student test scores a part of evaluations, but not 50 percent. The educator-advocacy group also has concerns about the lack of teacher input and the transition to new leadership both in the governor’s office and the Department of Education.“It has the potential to be a colossal failure,” he said. “The resources aren’t there to do the job well and do it right. It’s like we’re trying to go to the moon with a rubber band and a spit ball.” 

The basics of a new evaluation system — such as the link to student test scores — were laid out in Georgia’s Race to the Top application. The state agreed to carry out those key reforms in exchange for federal money. But the details are still in the works and will be an ongoing process as the state introduces the changes first in the 26 districts, and later statewide.Until now, local districts have used their own models to evaluate teachers, but most rate educators in two ways: satisfactory or unsatisfactory. Unsatisfactory ratings must be reported to the state. In 2008-09, 817 educators earned that classification, according to Department of Education officials, 0.6 percent of the total number of certified staff in public schools that year.The new evaluations will have multiple categories so that educators have more feedback on their performance and a better understanding of training they need to improve. Teachers and principals will be rated on whether they reduced the achievement gap, on lesson plans or school improvement plans, and, for teachers, classroom observations.

But the most controversial and complicated change will be including student test data in teacher and principal evaluations. The new system will take into account “student-growth” scores, arrived at by plugging three years of a student’s test results into a mathematical formula to predict future scores. Educators will be rated on how closely students follow that trajectory.

State and local officials are trying to decide which of the handful of growth models in use nationwide they will use. Complicated formulas are more accurate but harder to explain to teachers.

Tennessee, which has one of the oldest of these models in the country, now requires 50 percent of a teacher’s evaluation to hinge on student scores. That’s frustrated teachers who say they can’t get a clear explanation of how the scores are calculated.

‘A multitude of issues’

Georgia teachers are concerned about the impact of adding test scores to their evaluations.

Curtis Baxter, a seventh-grade social studies teacher in DeKalb County <http://g.ajc.com/r/Cj/> , said his annual evaluation normally consists of a 20-minute observation from a school administrator who later offers feedback on his teaching style. Student performance isn’t a consideration. 

Baxter, who has been an educator for 17 years, said he is not opposed to having test scores factor into his reviews, as long as teachers are given more autonomy to discipline students and manage their classrooms. Now, he says, students are sometimes promoted to higher grades regardless of their test scores, and sometimes returned to class even after serious behavior problems.“There’s a multitude of issues that need to be (talked) over before decisions are made,” Baxter said.

One issue is how to evaluate the estimated ?70 percent of Georgia teachers who instruct nontested classes such as physical education and kindergarten. According to the plan, 60 percent of evaluations for those teachers would be based on observations and walk-throughs, while the remainder would come from student and parent surveys.The stakes will be high, with implications for teachers’ continued employment and salaries. 

After three years, new teachers whose students aren’t showing enough academic growth on tests would not be recertified. Other teachers would be recertified every five years only if their students post the proper gains.These changes have to be approved by the Professional Standards Commission, which oversees teacher certification. They are expected to take effect in five years, according to state officials.Salary step increases, now determined by years of employment and education attainment, will be tied to performance for all teachers and leaders, and the top performers will earn extra pay increases. A new salary <http://g.ajc.com/r/DF/>  scale will take effect in the 26 districts in the fourth year of the grant, but it will require action by the General Assembly before it applies statewide.

Existing teachers will be able to choose whether to participate in the new pay system or continue in the existing salary <http://g.ajc.com/r/DF/>  schedule; but new teachers will be paid under the new system.

One Georgia school district, Jones County, backed out of the Race to the Top program because of objections to the performance pay plan. A high-profile study released this year by Vanderbilt University found that offering performance bonuses alone does not lead to higher test scores.But Georgia Race to the Top architect Hames said she believes the changes will help weed out ineffective teachers and attract more high-quality instructors to the profession.“You want to have a salary <http://g.ajc.com/r/DF/>  system that puts the focus on quality teaching, and helping students grow academically,” she said. “You want to reward those teachers who are wonderful at what they do.”The state has pledged to include teachers in the development of the new system.Nationally, teacher evaluations are gaining attention as districts around the country look for ways to improve the quality of the teaching work force, said Dan Goldhaber, director of the Center for Education Data & Research and a professor at the University of Washington Bothell. 

Principals often hesitate to give out bad ratings because they have no control over a teacher’s salary <http://g.ajc.com/r/DF/>  or assignment, he said.So instead, low-performing teachers are given satisfactory ratings and encouraged to find jobs in another school or district, a process known to educators as “passing the trash” or “the dance of the lemons.”

“There’s not a lot of evidence that alternative evaluation systems make a difference, but there’s a lot of evidence what we’re doing today isn’t effective,” Goldhaber said. “Teachers differ, but unless you document those differences, you can’t act on them.”

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