Feb 12, 2014

SB 5246: test scores for me, but not for thee

Washington State stands to lose $44 million in federal funds if the legislature fails to meet Obama Administration demands to include state test scores in teacher evaluations, The Daily O reports:
State law already requires that student growth data be a significant factor in teacher and principal evaluations. But current law allows the districts to decide which tests to use: classroom-based, school-based, district-based or statewide.

The U.S. Department of Education has set a May deadline for the state to change the system in order to keep its waiver.
Solution #1: pressure the DOE to backpedal.
[S]ome Democrats are hoping that the state’s congressional delegation will persuade U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan and the U.S. Department of Education to grant Washington a waiver anyway, even if state lawmakers fail to specify which tests must play a role in teacher evaluations.
It's a risky strategy, given that other states have already been denied waivers. Hence, Solution #2:
Senate education leaders are trying to address the problem themselves, rather than relying on members of Congress. A Senate education panel last week advanced a bill that would not only require students’ scores on statewide tests to be used in teacher and principal evaluations, but also specifies how.
That how is found in Senate Bill 5246, which is currently sitting in the Rules Committee. It's worth a closer look, as it contains not one, but two problematic features.

First, the bill establishes evaluations that are inherently unfair, by holding otherwise similarly-situated teachers to different standards.
...for teachers who teach reading or language arts or mathematics in a grade in which the federally mandated statewide student assessments are administered, one of the multiple measures of student growth must be the student results on the relevant assessments.
"Student growth" is statutorily defined as progress measured in two points at time. So, if I'm a high school English teacher (and I am) teaching sophomores who are taking the Writing HSPE (which I'm not), then my students have to improve their performance over the last time they tested.

It sounds reasonable, until you take the time to reason it out. Even if the middle school test (the MSP) is carefully calibrated to be "the same" assessment of student ability, and even if the student performs to her true testing level in each session, and even if we can rule out natural maturation, there's a massive structural flaw.

As it stands, the assessments are taken three years apart. There's no good reason to praise the latest teacher for growth--or to punish the same teacher for lack of the same--when there are two or three (or maybe more) teachers who contribute to that growth in a three-year timespan.

Even if the assessment cycle can be kicked into higher gear--say, a pre-test in the Fall, and the "real deal" in the Spring--the system, at least above the elementary school level, still fails. I'm not going to take sole credit (or blame) for my hypothetical sophomores' argumentative writing skills, which they've honed (or dulled) in science or social studies and any other class that includes essay-writing. My class isn't offered in a vacuum.

The inequity exists horizontally as well. If you teach Band, Psychology, Calculus, or any other high school course that lacks a federally mandated assessment, you are held to a different standard; so, of course, the pessimistic (likely?) conclusion is that, in the name of rigor, policymakers will rush to test in those subjects as well.

Of course, should you get a raw deal in this dubious system, you can expect your district to navigate the nuances with respect for your unique situation and all the complex variables, right? Well...
Districts must use student growth data to create a rank order of teachers based on the amount of average student growth achieved in each teacher's classroom. The bottom quartile of teachers in the rank order shall be identified by the district as requiring additional support.
The arbitrary relative ranking proposal would force a high-performing district to provide "additional support" to its least awesome employees, even if their entire workforce is already awesome.

And I haven't even considered the practical and mathematical impossibilities of ranking teachers with diverse curricular assignments (for instance, I teach two "traditional" classrooms and two online-based Apex courses, so good luck comparing my impact to someone who teaches five 9th-grade Physical Science classes), or the inequity of ranking teachers who are test-bound against those who aren't.

I have no idea what the bill's prospects are. It could die a quiet death in the Rules Committee. It could fail on the Senate floor. It could get jammed in the House or in a conference committee. It could fail to get ink from Governor Inslee. Or, it could lurch zombielike past all those obstacles and start tearing at the guts of teacher morale.

Time will tell, and I will blog.


Matthew Stidham said...

Why don't we just forego the expensive tests and provide schools the funding they need to educate their students? Looking globally it is obvious that our requiring students to take tests to prove their learning has no positive effect. We should move these funds to providing tutors to help struggling students (possibly local college students to solve two problems at once) and ensure that materials are up to date. I will email your post to the Washington Student Association immediately so we might be able to put it on the agenda to stop it in its tracks.

Cameron Seib said...

How does the Legislature see SB 5426 as preferable to giving in to the DOE's demands?

I guess I'm not seeing how the options differ in their method(s) of assessment.

Mr. Anderson said...

The bill is a concession, if I didn't make that clear. It's only preferable as a way to secure $44 million, rather than hoping our congressional delegation can work out a solution that keeps our current evaluative framework (called TPEP) intact.