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Teacher Evaluations at Center of South Dakota's Appeal of NCLB-Waiver Status


South Dakota is the latest state to have the U.S. Department of Education place its waiver from No Child Left Behind Act on "high risk" status. And unless the two sides can reach an agreement in the coming months regarding teacher and principal evaluations, South Dakota could soon have to revert to NCLB.

State chief Melody Schopp appealed that status earlier this month, arguing that the Education Department hasn't indicated that South Dakota's evaluation systems, the reason for the state's high-risk designation, would get South Dakota in trouble when it came time to renew waivers.

Schopp also said in an interview that she has no intention of changing the state's plans for evaluations, which right now don't call for state test scores to count for a specific, statistical weight for teachers.

As my coworker Alyson Klein pointed out earlier this month, the Education Department is no longer playing hardball with respect to how teacher evaluations are treated in waivers. But it remains to be seen if the federal department will ultimately be satisfied that its concerns about South Dakota's evaluation plans outlined in previous letters to the state are no longer an issue.

'In a Heartbeat'

Although last month the department agreed to extend the state's waiver for the 2015-16 school year, along with those of three other states, South Dakota simultaneously became the fifth state to get the "high risk" designation, along with Arizona, Kansas, Oregon, and Washington. (Kansas and Oregon also appealed their high-risk tag, and all but Washington, which has lost its NCLB waiver, eventually got that tag removed. Oklahoma also lost its waiver over content standards last year, but regained it.) 

The department stated that unless South Dakota adopted a statewide plan for including student growth on state tests in evaluations for teachers in state-tested subjects, and also included student growth in principal evaluations beginning in 2016-17, the state's waiver wouldn't extend beyond 2015-16, and South Dakota would have to revert to NCLB. CLARIFICATION: The state's waiver plan does include the requirement that evaluations for teachers in subjects with state tests include student performance on those exams. But there is no current statewide plan for how those test scores factor into evaluations.

The department's Ann Whalen told the state that these changes in the state were necessary "so that teachers and principals in South Dakota have a meaningful way of understanding their students' growth in the context of similar data for other students and educators across the State."

Schopp told me, however, that she simply doesn't agree with the idea that giving state test scores a specific weight in evaluations is the right way to go. 

"If I knew it would drive student achievement, I'd do it in a heartbeat," Schopp said.

Rejection, Then Cooperation

In 2012, South Dakota voters rejected a ballot initiative, Referred Law 16, that would have tied half of teachers' evaluation to state test scores for those teaching subjects tested by South Dakota. 

Since then, Schopp said has worked with the state board of education and the state teachers' union on a different evaluation plan. One component of teacher evaluations are classroom observations. The other component would leave teachers in charge of setting Student Learning Objectives based on several factors, including a student's test scores (but not necessarily state test scores). Test scores of any variety, however, wouldn't have to carry a specific weight or percentage in those learning objectives. Developing these evaluations took place through the state board's regulatory power, and not through any new approved state legislation, Schopp noted. 

Schopp acknowledged that lack of a statistical weight in evaluations is at the heart of her disagreement with the Education Department over evaluations. But she said her department does not feel comfortable suddenly telling schools that after three years of work, South Dakota has to ditch its evaluation plans because of the federal government's demands. This school year is the first the state's evaluation system will count for teachers. The new principal evaluation system will kick in for the 2016-17 year.

UPDATE: For the purpose of waivers, the department isn't concerned with a specific weight that test scores must carry in evaluations, rather that they must fit into a statewide plan. 

"It's really a philosophical difference," Schopp said.

Although she stressed that the department had given "absolutely no indication" the state was headed down the wrong path since 2012, the department has corresponded with the state about its evaluation work since that failed ballot initiative. In a 2013 letter, for example, then-Assistant Secretary of Elementary and Secondary Education Deborah S. DeLisle told South Dakota that she was worried about districts' ability to implement new evaluations according to waiver requirements and with the backing of the state legislature. Evaluations were also the subject of concerns raised in a 2014 letter from the department to South Dakota. 

Unless South Dakota submits a new evaluation plan by Jan. 15 of next year, the department says the state won't receive an NCLB waiver for the 2016-17 year. Just what will happen to waivers in 2017 and beyond, after President Barack Obama leaves office, is an open question. By then, of course, Obama may have approved a reauthorization of federal education law. 

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