Teachers and Parents Beware: Misuse of Test Scores in Teacher Evaluation Will Make Testing Obsession Even More Damaging

The May 14 hearing of the House Public Education clarified some things about the new evaluation system proposed by Commissioner of Education Michael Williams.

–The Texas Education Agency under Commissioner Williams is determined to push ahead with a teacher-evaluation scheme that will make the state’s obsession with standardized testing even worse, to the detriment of students and teachers.

–Williams is insisting on using inaccurate value-added methodology (VAM) as a significant factor in teacher appraisal, even though this use of students’ scores on standardized tests for high-stakes personnel decisions has been increasingly discredited by rigorous educational research.

–Williams has put the legislature on the spot, by making a deal with the U.S. Department of Education to use a value-added score based on state tests of a teacher’s students as a significant appraisal factor for each individual teacher in core subjects, despite the fact that current state law does not authorize the commissioner to compel school districts to use this VAM approach (and despite the fact that lawmakers have repeatedly rejected bills to authorize this policy). If lawmakers fail to require use of VAM in the 2015 legislative session, conforming to Williams’ deal with the federal government, then Texas could lose exemptions from some federal No Child Left Behind Act mandates, school districts could be rated by the USDE as failing, and they could be forced to spend a portion of their Title I federal funding on tutoring and other supplemental educational services (often services of questionable value, judging by past experience).

–Texas AFT and other education groups will fight to prevent passage of any value-added, test-driven evaluation mandate, urging lawmakers not to give in to the commissioner’s stratagem. We noted in the May 14 hearing that USDE just last week announced that it would not hold states to currently mandated timetables for implementing the new VAM approach in teacher evaluation. That easing of pressure from USDE fits a pattern of retreat by the Secretary of Education when confronted with firm resistance by states to the strings he has attached to No Child Left Behind Act waivers.

–There is certainly ample reason to seize the proffered opportunity to slow down and think twice about the commissioner’s embrace of VAM. The commissioner wants to impose use of test-driven VAM statewide in the 2015-2016 school year, leaving too little time to consider any real lessons from the “pilot” year of the new system in 2014-2015 in selected districts. A real pilot program would involve trials in school districts of several alternative approaches to the measurement of improvements in student performance, not just VAM, would develop several years of data, and would be subject to rigorous scholarly analysis to see what difference each model makes, if any, in the effectiveness of teaching.

–One reason the commissioner is in such a hurry could be that his own continued tenure at the helm of TEA could be short. As an appointee of lame-duck Gov. Rick Perry, who leaves office in January 2015, Williams is likely to remain in office himself only until Perry’s successor names a replacement. There is no excuse for the legislature to allow the commissioner’s personal timetable to dictate the adoption of bad policy.

–Another reason for the rush job by devotees of test-driven VAM may be that the evidence against their pet idea keeps piling up. Just before the May 14 Texas House hearing, in fact, yet another rigorous scholarly study found that VAM, basing teacher evaluation on test scores, had “a weak to nonexistent link with teacher performance.” Texas AFT’s May 14 testimony cited some of that growing body of scholarship debunking VAM. An upcoming Hotline will provide an updated listing of the key studies and their findings, which militate strongly against use of VAM for any high-stakes decisions.

–One last gleaning from the May 14 hearing is that it is not enough just to debunk the false claims made for the use of VAM in teacher appraisal. Texas parents and teachers will need to show lawmakers that there are better ways to factor student performance into teacher appraisal.

The good news is that promising alternatives do exist. Upcoming Hotlines will explore them and help you educate the Texas legislature about its real options for improving teacher evaluation.

Filed Under: