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Teachers Get Effective Ratings Even When Student Gains Are Low, Study Says

Since 2009, the number of states requiring school districts to include evidence of student learning on teacher evaluations—"evidence" meaning for the most part test scores—has grown from 15 to 40. Yet, according to a new report, in 28 of these states, teachers can be rated effective even if their student learning scores are low.

The report, "Running in Place: How New Teacher Evaluations Fail to Live Up to Promises," was released today by the National Council on Teacher Quality (NCTQ), a Washington-based research and advocacy group.

"States should not, as a matter of policy, strive to give more teachers poor ratings; however, if all teachers are labeled effective, then schools, districts, and states cannot use evaluation results to intervene to support teachers who would benefit from more help," Elizabeth Ross, the managing director of state policy at NCTQ, says in a statement.

Some states, however, have made an effort to analyze the discrepancies between teacher ratings and student growth. As Stephen Sawchuk reports in a 2013 article on how high teacher ratings have endured despite evaluation system changes, Tennessee sent "coaches" to 73 schools that in the 2011-12 school year were found to have high teacher ratings and low levels of student growth. The goal was to retrain evaluators on how to document teacher practice. (NCTQ commends Tennessee in the report for tracking and publishing such discrepancies in teacher evaluations.)

The push to include evidence of student growth using "objective measures" like test scores came after the release of a 2009 report titled "The Widget Effect," which found that fewer than 1 percent of teachers receive unsatisfactory ratings. Lawmakers nationwide consequently fought to add the requirement for evidence of student progress and performance in teacher evaluations. But the report laments that despite changes to state laws, teacher evaluation ratings look much as they did when "The Widget Effect" was first released.

"State legislators made a big deal about their changes to teacher evaluations," says NCTQ president Kate Walsh in a statement. "They claimed new laws ensure that only teachers who proved their ability to raise student achievement would be rated effective or better. Unfortunately, state education agencies preserved the status quo by creating giant loopholes in the criteria for how teachers can earn an effective rating."

In 28 of the 30 states that require student growth to be a significant factor in evaluations (i.e., counting for at least 30 percent of the overall evaluation), teachers who earn a low score on student learning growth can still earn an effective rating as long as they earn high scores on observations, according to the report. The student growth part of the teacher evaluation equation is basically rendered worthless, the report concludes.

Only two of the states requiring student growth to be a significant factor in evaluations—Indiana and Kentucky—make it impossible for teachers who have not demonstrated that they've increased student learning to earn an overall rating of effective.

The report points out that the federal government's Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) doesn't require states to set up teacher-evaluation systems based in significant part on students' test scores. This has given states flexibility to tinker with evaluations, especially in the area of student growth measures, and they are taking that opportunity, as Madeline Will reports in this article. This has created a messy evaluation landscape in the process.

The report's authors suggest that, as states make plans under ESSA, they take a closer look at evaluations and make changes to prevent teachers from earning an effective rating without sufficient evidence they've increased student learning. States should at least ensure that teachers cannot be rated effective if they receive the lowest rating on the student-growth component of their evaluation, write the authors.

NCTQ also urges states to use evaluations as a way to help teachers improve their practice, rather than seeing them as a to-do list to be checked off.

And, finally, states should track teacher evaluation ratings for discrepancies, such as when high observation scores and low student learning measures result in an overall effective rating. When this occurs, the report says, states should provide districts with assistance, as Tennessee does, in the form of observation training and by examining student-growth calculations.

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