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“But no one’s saying test scores should be *everything*…”

July 14, 2011
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Not out loud, no. And not on purpose, sure.

I find myself talking about value-added measures (a statistical method of trying to assess teacher effectiveness using student test scores– read more of my thoughts on the issue here and here.) a lot lately. Usually, I’m speaking with reporters or people who are interested in the politics of education, but haven’t worked in schools any time in recent memory. They often ask why some folks (including myself) get so nervous about the practice, if VAM scores are only supposed to be part of a teacher’s overall evaluation.

Setting aside for a moment the problems inherent to using test scores to judge, well, anyone, let’s take a moment to consider the context into which these new evaluation practices will be introduced. While it’s true that many new evaluation plans do not explicitly require that all of a teacher’s evaluation be tied to test scores, given the current environment in many schools, it is very possible that this will become the de facto reality.

One thing on which many of us agree, no matter what style of education reform we prefer, is that current evaluation practices need improvement. While there are excellent examples of evaluation and support protocols around the country,  it’s definitely not true that evaluation is consistently done well in every single school or district.

People outside of schools tend to assume that the problem is inherent to the evaluation protocol that’s being used. That may be true in some places. But in others, the protocol itself isn’t the problem so much as the circumstances surrounding its use. Any evaluation tool, regardless of quality, is going to be ineffective if it’s not used properly. And in too many schools–especially the neediest ones, that reforms are supposed to target– teachers and principals don’t have the time or resources to do evaluation well.

In most places, it’s usually the case that probationary teachers have to be evaluated yearly, and then every other year or two after earning non-probationary status. That means in schools with high turnover– which is true for a lot of struggling public schools– evaluators will have a lot of evaluating to do. The bigger their “caseload”, the harder their job. And remember, these evaluators are usually the principal and assistant principal(s) in the building, who have a ton of other responsibilities in addition to teacher evaluation. That’s why so many evaluations tend to be “drive-by” observations once a year– many administrators don’t have time for much else. (There’s also the problem of those who aren’t skilled or ethical enough for the task, but we’ll leave that alone for today.)

Now, as many states and districts adopt teacher evaluation policies that require every single teacher to be evaluated every single year, the size of this task is only going to grow. While there are programs like LEAP, where a peer evaluator is added to the scenario, administrators are still required to do part of the evaluation– the additional evaluator is just adding more input, not relieving the administrator of any of their responsibilities. Likewise, in pilot programs like LEAP, it’s typically been the case that these additional staff have been paid for through private grants– money that cannot be depended upon year after year, or on a large scale as the new programs are spread district- and state-wide.

If you’re a principal who struggled to evaluate 12 of your 25 teachers each year; and you now face the prospect of having to evaluate all 25; and budget cuts have eliminated most of your support staff; and new laws (and more frequent tests) create additional reporting requirements and demands on your time: isn’t it possible– even likely— that you might look for ways to cut corners? And if you’re either uninformed about the pitfalls of VAM, or even if you know better, but know most of the public doesn’t, wouldn’t it be convenient to just use test performance to inform your judgment, instead of taking the time to observe…and document…and reflect…and meet…and discuss…and offer feedback…and repeat… for every single member of your staff?

There will be administrators who resist taking the easy way out. There will be school communities that band together and raise money to ensure their kids’ schools are adequately staffed to protect rigorous, useful teacher evaluations.

But in persistently struggling schools, where resources are stretched thin and personnel stretched even thinner, I wouldn’t count on it.

5 Comments leave one →
  1. July 14, 2011 11:09 am

    Yes, and bullets are only one small part of the gun. Good post, Sabrina

  2. July 14, 2011 4:01 pm

    Sorry, but in fact there are a lot of people saying that testing should be either the whole story or have the very vast lion’s share of the story in evaluating teachers, kids, schools, books, pedagogy, etc. And not just any testing: multiple-choice, machine-scored, standardized testing only. These folks, some of whom I’ve fought with on-line about mathematics education and other educational issues for over 15 years, are not shy about dismissing any other sorts of evaluations as “fuzzy.”

  3. Wyrm1 permalink
    July 15, 2011 9:26 am

    In DCPS our administrators have to do 3 evaluations per year. I was talking to my AP and she calculated that she spent 3 hours * 30 teachers * 3 evaluations = 270 hours per year on evaluation. That is about 5 weeks of 55 per week just spent on evaluations, not the rest of her very difficult job.

  4. Ryan permalink
    July 18, 2011 10:27 am

    When pro-VAM folk make that claim I always ask them what is the only factor in determining whether schools are making AYP? Reading and math scores on bubble tests. What was the only factor in the LA Times labelling of teachers as “effective” or “ineffective”? Year to year results on multiple choice tests.
    What are the sole factors that drive “best schools” lists at Newsweek, The Washington Post, and US News and World Report? The % of students who are enrolled in courses that culminate in standardized tests.

    Teachers who don’t suspect/fear that their ratings will come to be based solely on standardized test scores haven’t been paying attention.

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