Student Test Scores May Play a Smaller Role in Future PA Teacher Evaluations

Group Of Elementary Age Children In Art Class With Teacher

 

Pennsylvania lawmakers may have finally realized that treating teachers like crap isn’t a good way to improve public schools.

 

Across the country it’s getting harder to fill teaching positions with qualified educators. And that’s because of the way we treat the people who volunteer to educate the next generation.

 

You can’t raise expectations while taking away resources, union protections, and fair ways to evaluate their work.

 

And to his credit, state Sen. Ryan Aument seems to have finally seen the light.

 

In 2012, the Republican from Lancaster County was one of the leading proponents of the Commonwealth’s new teacher evaluation system which drastically increased the amount student test scores are used to assess educators.

 

But now Aument and other Republicans are proposing new legislation to cut back on these same measures.

 

Under the current system, only 50 percent of state teachers annual evaluations come from observations of what they actually do in the classroom. The rest comes from student test scores and other factors that are out of their control.

 

The proposed legislation would increase teacher observations to 70 percent of their evaluations and try to account for student poverty – in addition to student test scores – in the remaining 30 percent.

 

If passed, the new evaluation system would begin in the 2021-22 school year.

 

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Source: PSEA

The proposed legislation – Senate Bill 751passed in the Senate by a vote of 38-11.

 

However, the identical House Bill 1607 proposed by Rep. Jesse Topper (R-Bedford County) was not considered in time before the legislative session ended. It is expected to come up for a vote in the fall.

 

J.J. Abbott, a spokesperson for Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf, said that the governor generally supports the proposal. It has also been endorsed by the Pennsylvania State Education Association (PSEA) and the Pennsylvania Association of School Administrators (PASA).

 

Each year teachers are judged either Distinguished, Proficient, Needs Improvement or Failing. The first two are passing scores. The last two are not and require teachers to be more closely monitored, more frequently evaluated, complete a performance improvement plan and if improvements are not made, they can be fired.

 

If approved, the new bill would shorten the window when teachers are penalized for bad evaluations.

 

Under the current system, teachers who get two “Needs Improvement” ratings in 10 years can be sacked. The new bill shortens that period to four years. This incentivizes improvement and doesn’t hold a bad evaluation over a teacher’s head for a decade.

 

Moreover, the current law only allows principals to judge a very small percentage of their staff as Distinguished – the top of the scale. The proposed law puts no cap on this allowing them to give more honest and accurate evaluations.

 

Finally, there’s the issue of Student Learning Outcomes or SLOs. These are cumbersome and time consuming evaluations teachers are currently required to create and submit to their administrators for approval before conducting complicated performance measures of their classes that must be reviewed a second time by administrators as part of the annual evaluation.

 

I can’t find anywhere in either bill that spells out that these SLOs would be discontinued, but that does appear to be the case. There is no mention of them whatsoever in the new proposals where in the current law they make up 20% of the total evaluation.

 

The only thing I see that’s even close to the SLO is the requirement under Section 1138.7. Overall performance rating. Part II:

 

“A classroom teacher shall provide documented input to an evaluator on the development of teacher-specific data measures and annual results of data. The documented input shall be included with documentation of the classroom teacher’s overall annual rating.”

 

However, I don’t think this is the same thing.

 

Despite bipartisan support, there are important groups calling for caution on the proposal.

 

Teachers in the Philadelphia and Pittsburgh districts – the areas of the state with the highest percentage of impoverished students – say that they weren’t consulted on the bill and have not had time to fully consider it. Both groups belong to the American Federation of Teachers (AFT).

 

They worry that the poverty index included in the bill may not accurately account for  economic disparities and whether the proposal really reduces the influence of standardized testing on teacher evaluations. After all, test scores are part of the teacher specific evaluation which under the proposal would go from 15-20 percent of educator’s evaluations. It may be the elimination of the SLOs which rely on student performance that ultimately reduce student outcomes from the evaluation while slightly increasing standardized test scores.

 

In any case, educators and advocates should scour the proposed legislation in the summer months to ensure that legislators know the full impact of what they’ll be asked to vote on as early as September.

 

The proposal may have been initiated in part to deal with the nationwide plague of teachers walking off the job due to unfair legislative practices and the demonization of educators. Since 1996, the number of undergraduate education majors has declined by 55 percent. And, according to the Pennsylvania Department of Education, the number of newly issued instructional teaching certificates in the Commonwealth has dropped by 71 percent since 2009. The state used to issue more than 14,000 new teachers licenses  annually. In 2016-17, the state only gave out 4,412.

 

Perhaps offering educators more equitable evaluations may help stem the tide – otherwise we’ll soon find our classrooms filled with students that no one is willing to teach.

 

Another reason behind the new proposal may be a reaction to previous bad legislation in Harrisburg.

 

It seems to be an attempt to numb some of the sting from a 2017 bill that ended seniority-based teacher layoffs in the Commonwealth and instead tied those decisions to these teacher evaluations.

 

Now teachers who receive Unsatisfactory evaluations – even if that only means they need improvement – are the first to go. It allows administrators to stack the deck against teachers they don’t like, teachers at the top of the pay scale or who advocate for policies different than those favored by the bosses.

 

Frankly, it’s a lawsuit waiting to happen.

 

That bill was passed mostly by the Republican majority and though Wolf could have vetoed it, he chose to let it become law without his signature.

 

As bad as it is, it set a fire under legislators to at least create a better system for teacher evaluation which they seem to have actually taken seriously.

 

One concern lawmakers have with the current system is that it tends to penalize the best teachers and buoy the worst ones.

 

The best teachers get their evaluations dragged down if they work in low performing districts just as struggling teachers get theirs pushed up if they work in high performing ones.

 

It’s hoped that judging teachers more on what they actually do and trying to account for the poverty level of the students they teach will avoid this trap.

 

In truth, it’s unfair to judge teachers on student test scores at all. Mountains of research have concluded that such so-called Value-Added Measures (VAM) are inaccurate and discriminatory.

 

Relying on these measures even to a lessor degree opens the state and individual districts up to legal challenges as has happened in other states.

 

But at least this new suggestion improves over the present system in many ways.

 

We’ll have to see if Philadelphia and Pittsburgh teachers end up endorsing the plan and whether the House finally passes the measure and Wolf signs it.

 

Stay tuned.

 


 

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Teachers Don’t Want All This Useless Data

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One of the most frustrating things I’ve ever been forced to do as a teacher is to ignore my students and concentrate instead on the data.

 

I teach 8th grade Language Arts at a high poverty, mostly minority school in Western Pennsylvania. During my double period classes, I’m with these children for at least 80 minutes a day, five days a week.

 

During that time, we read together. We write together. We discuss important issues together. They take tests. They compose poems, stories and essays. They put on short skits, give presentations, draw pictures and even create iMovies.

 

I don’t need a spreadsheet to tell me whether these children can read, write or think. I know.

 

Anyone who had been in the room and had been paying attention would know.

 

But a week doesn’t go by without an administrator ambushing me at a staff meeting with a computer print out and a smile.

 

Look at this data set. See how your students are doing on this module. Look at the projected growth for this student during the first semester.

 

It’s enough to make you heave.

 

I always thought the purpose behind student data was to help the teacher teach. But it has become an end to itself.

 

It is the educational equivalent of navel gazing, of turning all your students into prospective students and trying to teach them from that remove – not as living, breathing beings, but as computer models.

 

It reminds me of this quote from Michael Lewis’ famous book Moneyball: The Art of Winning an Unfair Game:

 

“Intelligence about baseball statistics had become equated in the public mind with the ability to recite arcane baseball stats. What [Bill] James’s wider audience had failed to understand was that the statistics were beside the point. The point was understanding; the point was to make life on earth just a bit more intelligible; and that point, somehow, had been lost. ‘I wonder,’ James wrote, ‘if we haven’t become so numbed by all these numbers that we are no longer capable of truly assimilating any knowledge which might result from them.'”

 

The point is not the data. It is what the data reveals. However, some people have become so seduced by the cult of data that they’re blind to what’s right in front of their eyes.

 

You don’t need to give a child a standardized test to assess if he or she can read. You can just have them read. Nor does a child need to fill in multiple choice bubbles to indicate if he or she understands what’s been read. They can simply tell you. In fact, these would be better assessments. Doing otherwise, is like testing someone’s driving ability not by putting them behind the wheel but by making them play Mariocart.

 

The skill is no longer important. It is the assessment of the skill.

 

THAT’S what we use to measure success. It’s become the be-all, end-all. It’s the ultimate indicator of both student and teacher success. But it perverts authentic teaching. When the assessment is all that’s important, we lose sight of the actual skills we were supposed to be teaching in the first place.

 

The result is a never ending emphasis on test prep and poring over infinite pages of useless data and analytics.

 

As Scottish writer Andrew Lang put it, “He uses statistics as a drunken man uses lamp posts – for support rather than for illumination.”

 

Teachers like me have been pointing this out for years, but the only response we get from most lawmakers and administrators is to hysterically increase the sheer volume of data and use more sophisticated algorithms with which to interpret it.

 

Take the Pennsylvania Value Added Assessment System (PVAAS). This is the Commonwealth’s method of statistical analysis of students test scores on the Pennsylvania System of School Assessment (PSSA) and Keystone Exams, which students take in grades 3-8 and in high school, respectively.

 

It allows me to see:

  • Student scores on each test
  • Student scores broken down by subgroups (how many hit each 20 point marker)
  • Which subgroup is above, below or at the target for growth

 

But perhaps the most interesting piece of information is a prediction of where each student is expected to score next time they take the test.

 

How does it calculate this prediction? I have no idea.

 

That’s the kind of metric they don’t give to teachers. Or taxpayers, by the way. Pennsylvania has paid more than $1 billion for its standardized testing system in the last 8 years. You’d think lawmakers would have to justify that outlay of cash, especially when they’re cutting funding for just about everything else in our schools. But no. We’re supposed to just take that one on faith.

 

So much for empirical data.

 

Then we have the Classroom Diagnostic Tools (CDT). This is an optional computer-based test given three times a year in various core subjects.

 

If you’re lucky enough to have to give this to your students (and I am), you get a whole pile of data that’s supposed to be even more detailed than the PVAAS.

 

But it doesn’t really give you much more than the same information based on more data points.

 

I don’t gain much from looking at colorful graphs depicting where each of my students scored in various modules. Nor do I gain much by seeing this same material displayed for my entire class.

 

The biggest difference between the PVAAS and the CDT, though, is that it allows me to see examples of the kinds of questions individual students got wrong. So, in theory, I could print out a stack of look-a-like questions and have them practice endless skill and drills until they get them right.

 

And THAT’S education!

 

Imagine if a toddler stumbled walking down the hall, so you had her practice raising and lowering her left foot over-and-over again! I’m sure that would make her an expert walker in no time!

 

It’s ridiculous. This overreliance on data pretends that we’re engaged in programming robots and not teaching human beings.

 

Abstracted repetition is not generally the best tool to learning complex skills. If you’re teaching the times table, fine. But most concepts require us to engage students’ interests, to make something real, vital and important to them.

 

Otherwise, they’ll just go through the motions.

 

“If you torture the data long enough, it will confess,” wrote Economist Ronald Coase. That’s what we’re doing in our public schools. We’re prioritizing the data and making it say whatever we want.

 

The data justifies the use of data. And anyone who points out that circular logic is called a Luddite, a roadblock on the information superhighway.

 

Never mind that all this time I’m forced to pour over the scores and statistics is less time I have to actually teach the children.

 

Teachers don’t need more paperwork and schematics. We need those in power to actually listen to us. We need the respect and autonomy to be allowed to actually do our jobs.

 

Albert Einstein famously said, “Not everything that can be counted counts, and not everything that counts can be counted.”

 

Can we please put away the superfluous data and get back to teaching?