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N.M. Mulls Changes to Teacher Evaluation System That Says 3 in 10 Need to Improve

Policymakers in New Mexico have been pondering how to revamp a teacher evaluation system that deems 29 percent of the state's educators either ineffective or in need of improvement, the highest rate in the country—by far. But on Saturday, a bill to lower the percentage of a teacher's rating that is derived from students' test scores was effectively killed in committee. The primary culprits behind the bill's defeat, ironically, were the state's teachers' unions.

In some ways time is on their side. So far, teachers deemed ineffective have been spared any negative consequences by a temporary injunction in an ongoing court case over the evaluations. 

The 6-6 vote in the House education committee came after hours of passionate testimony from educators who called the current system, and particularly its reliance on test scores, unfair and overly punitive, reports the Albuquerque Journal. And while the bill would have reduced the weight of those scores, teachers' unions leaders are against any effort that would enshrine a teacher evaluation system that relies on test scores in state law. Currently, only state education department regulations undergird the state's teacher evaluation system, 50 percent of which is determined by a much-debated value-added model (VAM) that measures how much a student's test scores have improved over a school year. Opponents say VAM unfairly punishes teachers for factors in students' learning that are beyond their control.

Union officials are calling for a system that relies much more on classroom observations. And while the proposed bill would have increased the weight of classroom observations from 25 percent to 35 percent, the unions may also be hoping to win bigger concessions in ongoing settlement talks with the state education department stemming from a three-year-old lawsuit over the teacher evaluation regulations. 

After six controversial years as the state's education chief, Hanna Skandera hit the road this past fall, touring the sparsely populated Land of Enchantment to hear from educators. Since her "listening tour," Skandera has been pushing for changing the evaluation weights. In doing so, Skandera is following the lead of education officials around the country since the Every Student Succeeds Act upended a policy push from the Obama administration that rewarded states for instituting test evaluation systems that rated teachers "in significant part, based on student growth."

Ellen Bernstein, the president of the Albuquerque Teachers Federation—an affiliate of the American Federation of Teachers—argued that the bill reducing the weight of test scores did little to address their bigger objections to the current system.  

"[T]hat's still more than most states, but that's not even the point,"Bernstein told the Albuquerque Journal referring to the proposed 40 percent weight for students' test scores. "The point is that both practice and research have concluded tying student scores to teacher evaluations does not work. The science and math behind it doesn't pan out and you can't get consistent ratings on a teacher's ability to teach. Fifty percent or 40 percent—it's still junk math."

Skandera largely stood by the tenets of the current system in an interview with the education news website, The 74: "New Mexico is one of only two states in the nation that has a really good ability to identify great teachers, highly effective teachers, effective, and those who are struggling. Many states implemented a teacher evaluation system that didn't give them the ability to truly differentiate to support their teachers who needed support and champion their teachers who needed success."

She added that she thought the state's controversial attendance requirement, which dings teachers for taking the sick leave guaranteed to them in their contracts, had helped the state.

"In 2012, the U.S. Office for Civil Rights said 47 percent of our teachers were habitually not in attendance, meaning they were missing 10 or more days. Right now, that's at 12 percent," she said.  "That means we've saved taxpayers $3.5 million in substitute-teaching costs."

Nevertheless, Skandera threw her support behind an effort to redesign that element of the system as well. That bill did make it out of committee.

It's unclear if reducing the weight of test scores would do much to increase satisfactory ratings.  A January report from the National Council on Teacher Quality criticized New Mexico, as well as 27 other states, for maintaining a rating system that allows teachers to score effective ratings even if their students' test scores don't actually increase. Under the current system, teachers need 119 points out of a possible 200 to be deemed effective. They can get half of 100 points from their classroom observations, attendance record, and scores on student and parent surveys, reports The Santa Fe New Mexican. That means a teacher just needs 19 out of 100 points on the value-added component of the evaluation system to score an effective rating.

Charles Goodmacher, a spokesman for the state branch of the National Education Association, touted the report to The New Mexican as proof of the system's flaws. But Matt Montaño, the director of educator quality at the state education department, defended the system's rigor, saying that NCTQ report focuses on a theoretically possible though extremely unlikely occurrence: "They point out the kind of scenario that is, in fact, something that could happen, but something that is not likely to happen."

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