Teachers unions want more flexible evaluations

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By Mackenzie Mays 
Staff Writer

The U.S. Department of Education announced Thursday that some states can delay requirements that tie teacher evaluations to student test scores — but West Virginia is a step ahead.

U.S. Department of Education Secretary Arne Duncan announced that states are now allowed to push back the requirements until the 2015-16 school year, citing complaints from teachers that it’s too soon to rate their performance based on Common Core standards, which they say are too new to accurately judge.

The West Virginia Board of Education already voted in July to delay a test score-dependent part of its policy for another year, hearing the same complaints from the state’s branches of the American Federation of Teachers and the National Education Association.

The board voted to delay a requirement that makes 15 percent of math and reading/language arts teacher evaluations — subjects found on standardized tests — based solely on test scores. The changes will not be implemented until the 2015-16 school year, with the school board voting to use this year as a pilot for implementation of other aspects of its new teacher evaluation policy.

West Virginia Department of Education spokeswoman Liza Cordiero said that because the state is part of the last tier of school districts to implement major changes associated with breaking away from No Child Left Behind, state officials were able to delay it because they’re still in a “peer review” phase and abiding by different timelines than other states.

Duncan’s statement on Thursday pertains to districts in states that are further along, Cordeiro said.

“We were already ahead of the game, making sure that teachers understand. We were able to suggest exactly what [the USDOE] suggests. We’re waiting, but we’re still showing teachers what their evaluations would look like,” Cordiero said Thursday. “To push it back even further, we’re really not allowed to do that, but that’s not to say that another statement might come out saying we are being allowed the same opportunity.”

Duncan made bold statements about the public school system’s dependence on standardized test scores Thursday, saying testing should only be one piece of how progress is measured, and is “sucking the oxygen out of the room in a lot of schools.”

Duncan’s statements are giving leaders of the state’s teachers unions hope that West Virginia will get additional time to sort out its evaluation policy, which they say is not only unfair to math and reading teachers, but cannot truly indicate student progress because the state is in the middle of transitioning to new standards.

Common Core standards will be fully implemented in West Virginia this school year, with the Smarter Balanced Assessment — the state’s new standardized test replacing the Westest 2 — to be implemented for the first time in spring 2015.

“Even talking with our national leaders about possibly focusing on something instead of state tests, and using multiple measures, that could be huge,” said Christine Campbell, president of the state’s branch of the AFT. “West Virginia could say, ‘Let’s really do this right, and give ourselves that extra time to provide the support and resources needed at the classroom level to be successful on the Smarter Balanced Test.’

“[Duncan] is skating on the verge of saying, ‘Well, maybe state tests aren’t the best measure.’ So, if that’s the case, why again would we set ourselves up,” she said.

Dale Lee, president of the state’s branch of the NEA, said he hopes for longer than a one-year delay, pointing to past failed expectations of NCLB.

Under NCLB, all public school students in the state were expected to be scoring at proficient levels on standardized tests by this year, but the latest numbers show that only about half of West Virginia students achieved proficient scores.

“Everybody in education knew that wasn’t going to happen. It’s like saying 100 percent of kids in West Virginia won’t have cavities, and, if they do, let’s blame the dentists,” Lee said. “But it’s easier to explain that than to continue to create a curriculum thats based solely on testing. I’m at the point where I’m saying, why do we continue to play this game when we know it’s not going to work?”