Teachers in most Maryland school districts may get a one-year reprieve from being judged on student test scores, as U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan has indicated he would consider delaying the requirement.
The new teacher evaluations — which Maryland agreed to implement in exchange for millions of dollars in federal grants given to states embarking on education reform — have strained relations between state officials and teacher unions.
Local school superintendents have raised concerns about what weight to give student achievement and how fast to implement the new evaluations. Some have committed to the new evaluations for only one year.
"The superintendents have been advocating for the process to be slowed down," said Michael Martirano, St. Mary's County superintendent and president of the Public School Superintendents Association of Maryland.
Maryland State Superintendent Lillian Lowery said she would seek consensus from educators across the state about asking federal officials for the delay. She said she believes there will be support.
Lowery said school districts would still begin using the new evaluation system, but they would not make personnel decisions based on test scores. If the delay were approved, it would not allow a principal, for instance, to rate a teacher as ineffective at the end of next school year if the students scored poorly on annual tests.
Superintendents and the Maryland State Education Association, the union representing many of the state's teachers, point out that even though a new curriculum will be implemented in the fall, students will still be given the old state tests that don't align with that curriculum. And those test scores would be used as a portion of a teacher's evaluation.
"There's a lot of angst," said Cheryl Bost, vice president of the union. "I don't know a superintendent who feels comfortable that they can roll this out with integrity."
The union had been calling for the state to delay implementing the evaluation system before the announcement this week from Duncan, who said teachers across the nation had expressed concerns about the evaluations.
"We should be doing things right and not just checking off a box to say we did something," Bost added.
Beginning this fall, schools will be teaching a new, higher-level curriculum in English and math based on national voluntary standards known as the "common core." But tests to go with the new curriculum won't be fully in place until the 2014-2015 school year.
In addition, local school superintendents and union officials are concerned about moving from one set of tests to another while implementing new teacher evaluations. Under that system, up to 20 percent of a teacher's effectiveness would be based on those test scores.
Baltimore County Superintendent Dallas Dance said he and other superintendents "don't feel comfortable holding people accountable to a test we have not seen." As a result, his district has only agreed to do the evaluations for one year, not three years as the state had requested.
School districts were required to devise new evaluation systems based on state guidelines by June 7. If they didn't submit an acceptable plan, the state would impose its own.
The state has approved plans from all but one of the 22 school systems. Only Baltimore City is still completing details of its plan, but Lowery expects the plan to be approved shortly. In addition, Montgomery and Frederick counties did not seek the federal grant money known as Race to the Top and will delay using the evaluations for another year.
Officials with the state education department said they encouraged districts to come up with innovative plans tailored to their distinct needs.
Lowery said the state also emphasized that based on the first year of data, the evaluation plans could be modified.
"What we don't want to do is draw a hard line in the sand and sign on to something for three years that doesn't work for us," Lowery said.
Some school districts would give a weight of 10 percent to test scores in the evaluations, while others set the bar at 20 percent.
Factors such as organization, classroom management and other professional practices would constitute 50 percent of a teacher's score on the evaluation, and the remaining 30 or 40 percent would be based on goals that a teacher sets with the principal.
There's another problem in devising a system to evaluate teachers based on student test scores: Only about one-third of the state's teachers are in subjects that have standardized tests. One solution has been to propose giving students other assessments at the beginning and end of the school year.
Some Maryland teachers were evaluated using the new criteria in a field test. About half were from Baltimore City, which decided to field test all of its educators.
"We decided to have a gigantic preview," said Jennifer Bell-Ellwanger, chief accountability officer for the school system. "It has really paved the way for us so that our teachers know what to expect in the fall."
Baltimore signed on to the state's recommendation that 20 percent of teacher evaluations be tied to student achievement, but district officials are still negotiating with union leaders about how that would be done. District officials note that union contracts have tied evaluations to compensation for the past three years.
Bell-Ellwanger said that while city educators are prepared for the new evaluations, they will still grapple with teaching a new curriculum that doesn't align with the assessments.
"The next two years are going to be particularly challenging," she said.