Teacher evaluations

Abby Katherman, a fifth grade teacher at Prettyboy Elementary School, teaches her homeroom class. (Barbara Haddock Taylor / Baltimore Sun / June 12, 2014)

After years of holding schools accountable for student test scores, the idea of using those scores to evaluate teachers and determine their pay has become the latest battleground in education across the nation.

This past school year, Maryland's 60,000 teachers were evaluated for the first time according to a formula that required half of their final rating to be based on how much their students learned.

Policymakers and proponents of the new evaluation systems hope that eventually they can be used to get rid of poorly performing teachers and reward the best with higher pay. But teachers unions contend that further emphasis on test scores narrows the focus of learning and that effectiveness in the classroom is more complex than a score.

The best models for evaluating teachers help them "enhance their professional practice rather than simply narrow their focus to high-stakes standardized testing," said Adam Mendelson, a spokesman for the Maryland State Education Association, the union that represents most of the state's teachers.

While unions are collaborating with Maryland education leaders to devise an evaluation system that works, they say it is too early to say whether the new measures — including test scores — are a valid way to judge teachers.

The results of the state's pilot evaluation program that took into account test scores varied widely, according to data obtained by The Baltimore Sun through a public records request. None of the teachers in Baltimore County, for instance, were found to be ineffective, compared with 7.2 percent in Anne Arundel County.

Some counties did not test a random sample of teachers for the pilot program during the 2012-2013 school year and instead selected participants, excluding teachers who were struggling.

But in Baltimore, the only school system to evaluate every classroom teacher in the pilot, 10 percent were rated ineffective under the new system. About 10 percent of the city's teachers were rated highly effective, and the remaining 80 percent fell into the effective category.

Two years earlier, 200 of about 4,000 city teachers, or 5 percent, were rated unsatisfactory.

In the past, teachers were evaluated based on a formal observation by a principal as well as other subjective elements, such as how well teachers constructed a lesson plan or managed a classroom. A tiny percentage of teachers across the state were rated unsatisfactory.

Despite concerns by local school leaders that another year was needed to iron out problems with the new evaluations, Maryland took its system live for the 2013-2014 school year.

Some school districts such as Baltimore County decided not to tie pay to the evaluations and put more emphasis on trying out the new system, while others such as Baltimore City did use the evaluations when deciding pay. In the city, a teacher's job performance was boiled down to a single percentage score that corresponded to raises, or none.

Districts across the state were supposed to use standardized test scores in evaluations, but after local and national backlash, Maryland and other states have backed away from the direct use of scores until the 2016-2017 school year.

Student test scores plunged last school year because of a disconnect between the material that students were taught and what they were tested on. The state has been implementing the Common Core, a set of stricter standards, but hasn't yet changed the state tests to reflect the changes. The issue became a political controversy, and the Maryland General Assembly weighed in by prohibiting the use of test scores in teacher evaluations for two years.

Instead of using state test scores, teachers and principals work together to set goals, called student learning objectives, at the beginning of the school year. Teachers then write or choose their own tests to administer to their classes, giving them at the beginning and end of the year to measure whether students have met the goals.

Teachers and principals acknowledge that they are still working out the kinks with student learning objectives. As a result, the state's boards of education, teachers unions and superintendents signed a memorandum of understanding this week, agreeing to work together to make student learning outcomes more uniform and valid.

Those learning objectives and other measures of student growth will be worth 50 percent of a teacher's evaluation until the use of state scores takes effect. The state school board may require that 20 percent of a teacher's evaluation be based on learning objectives that take into account test scores. For example, if a teacher's class did poorly on fractions in a state test, her goal could be to raise their achievement on fractions the following year.

Battles have broken out in Maryland and the nation over whether the new evaluations accurately measure a teacher's performance.

Baltimore teachers recently protested on the steps of North Avenue headquarters over last-minute changes to their evaluations that lowered some teachers in the rankings and threatened to reduce pay.

Even some of the education advocates who led the charge for reforming teacher evaluations are now seeking to slow implementation to prevent backlash.