Maryland schools are moving closer to overhauling the way that they evaluate teachers, putting more emphasis on student performance and test scores.

The new evaluation system is currently being tested in Baltimore City and six counties, and will be expanded to the rest of the state in June.

Supporters of the new system, including Gov.Martin O'Malley, said the change was necessary because Maryland did not have a statewide teacher evaluation system that took student performance into account.

Under the new system, half of a teacher's evaluation score will depend on student performance and the other half on professional development.

Submit a Letter to the Editor for the Laurel Leader, Columbia Flier and Howard County Times

In the seven districts where the new evaluation models are being tested —Baltimore city and Baltimore, Charles, Kent, Prince George's, Queen Anne's and St. Mary's counties —supporters said feedback from teachers has been positive.

But teachers' unions said close monitoring of the new program will be needed as it is expanded to other counties at the end of this school year.

While each district can develop its own evaluation model, it must comply with a state law passed in 2010 that sparked a complete overhaul of the system.

Teacher evaluations are used to determine pay increases and promotions.

Right now, the state rates teachers on the basis of principal observation, professional experience and the quality of their course material.

As the changes take effect, continual review will be needed to ensure that each district develops a sound evaluation model, said Betty Weller, vice president of the Maryland State Education Association, the state's largest teachers union.

"I suspect that we are going to learn more things when all 24 districts are piloted," Weller said.

Weller also co-chairs the Maryland Council for Educator Effectiveness, a panel appointed by O'Malley to guide the development of a statewide evaluation system.

Though the MCEE is scheduled to issue its final set of recommendations about the new system in June, Weller said she wants the council's oversight to continue indefinitely.

"My concern is that we don't call this a finished product this year, but that we continue to monitor and watch the new evaluation model for several years," she said.

While teachers have expressed concern over what a new evaluation system could mean for their careers, so far overall feedback has been positive, Weller said.

"When they (the teachers) hear that it's not supposed to be a 'gotcha,' I don't think 100 percent of them believe it's not a 'gotcha,' but they still feel a lot better about it," she said.

Prince George's 'ahead of the curve'

InPrince George's County, a pilot program to test a new evaluation system has been in place for the last six months. Approximately 120 teachers from schools across the county are being evaluated.

Prince George's Countyis using a model to assess teachers that combines student test scores with in-class observation by administrators.

The county was well prepared for the change and is working closely with local teacher unions, said Bonita Coleman Potter, deputy superintendent for Prince George's County Public Schools.