Thursday, January 24, 2013

Teacher Evaluation: Getting It Right Takes Time

The reaction to the Madison letter asking the state to slow down a bit with its new education initiatives has been overwhelming and positive. Clearly, there are many other school districts that believe, as we do, that in order to produce a transparent, valid, seamless evaluation system, we need a full school year to test and assess the program. That would give all districts the opportunity to accurately measure the data they've generated and work out the rather substantial obstacles that are both obvious and anticipated.

And since the State Board of Education won't consider the final version of new state regulations until September 4, 2013 and the  Office of Administrative Law won't put the final regulations into effect until October 7, 2013, we figure that we have a good case. Look at those dates again and consider; every school district in the state is supposed to have a fully functional evaluation system in place by September 1, but the final rules won't be approved until October.

Make sense? Read on.

Our other concern is the fact that the state is requiring all districts to implement the Common Core Curriculum Standards at the same time they need to create an evaluation system. The state's argument is that you need both because how else can you evaluate whether a teacher is teaching the Core Standards if you don't tie them to the evaluation? Our argument is that these are massive endeavors that need to be done one at a time in order for them to be done to our high standards.

First, implement the Common Core and write district curriculum documents that reflect them. Then train the teaching staff to write lesson plans in a format that uses those standards. Then write an evaluation system that measures how effectively the teacher implements the standards and the extent to which the students learn and make progress. The key is that teachers need to teach the curriculum before they can be evaluated on it. Further, if all school districts need to incorporate the standards now, we'd need two years to measure student growth. Otherwise, you're measuring two different systems (the current state standards and the new Common Core) and basing teacher's jobs on questionable data.

We also did a little digging due to our concern about the PARCC tests not being compatible with Windows XP, which about 99% of our district's computers run as their operating system. We did get some clarification: PARCC will run on XP, but Microsoft and other venders will not support the system if we have a problem. And we all know the chances of the tests running 100% smoothly during their implementation is close to zero.

But the PARCC train wreck goes deeper. Just as not all students are proficient with paper and pencil tests, many students will have trouble taking a high stakes test on a computer. There are issues of eye strain, seating comfort and screen resolution that can impact how well a student performs on the test. What about students with time accommodations on their IEPs? Do the PARCC tests come with timers? Will the system allow a student to take time-and-a-half, or more, on the test? What if a teacher needs to read every question and choice to the student?

Then there's the question of scheduling. PARCC tests are to be administered in two sets: March and May of each year. Advanced Placement exams are also scheduled for May. How is a district to choose? You can't give both at the same time, and having students take tests for three weeks straight would be counterproductive and a massive waste of time. Some districts are even considering cancelling their marking period electives so that students will have time to take the tests. How effective is that?

Further, the PARCC System needs to accommodate every student and be 100% accurate and dependable. Please tell me what area of education, or life, is 100% accurate and dependable? What happens if the system crashes before a student is finished with the test? What if the data gets wiped out? The present Department of Education guidelines says that PARCC will not be fully rolled out until the 2014-2015 school year. That gives us a built in timeline: Test it for a year, then gather data on how well it works. Remember the Algebra and Biology tests the state rolled out over the past few years? They tested the tests and gathered data. Now they're telling school districts that they can't do that with a system that will determine people's jobs.

There are so many variables at work here that I, for one, would feel much more comfortable and confident if I had a full school year to work with all of the systems and protocols. Districts that were part of the pilots have to feel better that they could work out the problems before they counted. Every district should have that luxury. This is the message that we will bring to Trenton. Dr. Rossi, Mrs. Ellis and I hope that the DOE and the Commissioner are in a receptive mood.

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