Amid a developing backlash against fast-paced, state-mandated education reforms, Maryland school officials want to delay the use of student test scores to evaluate teachers for three years.
Maryland had committed to using test scores in the evaluations for teachers and principals beginning at the end of this school year as part of an agreement the state made several years ago to secure millions in federal grant money.
But the state has made the switch to teaching the more rigorous Common Core this year, and the test aligned with those standards is not ready. Officials believe they need two years of data from the new test to evaluate teachers accurately. That data would not be available until the 2016-2017 school year.
The state school board voted Tuesday to ask the federal government for a delay. While U.S. officials have said they will consider applications requesting delays, there is no guarantee that Maryland will receive approval.
Teachers, who have feared that their performance would be linked to scores on tests that no longer match what they are teaching in the classroom, welcomed the board request.
"We support the concept of delaying this," said Cheryl Bost, vice president of the Maryland Education Association.
Most children in the state will continue to take the outdated Maryland School Assessments until 2015, when the new tests go live. MSA scores fell significantly last year. State education officials attributed the decline to the tests not matching the Common Core.
Teachers have also expressed concern that they might be judged on results from the first round of new testing in the spring of 2015. They say the assessments are new, unproven and unvalidated.
Bost said that the union is concerned about "the fine print language" in the state school board's application, which commits local school districts after 2016 to base 20 percent of a teacher evaluation on scores.
The union says the state is committing local districts to a more rigid plan than is required, including a one-size-fits-all state model for the evaluations that does not give local schools flexibility.
Some see this tug between the teachers unions and the state as a debate over who will control local schools.
"This is an epic struggle, a debate for control of education between governments at the local, state and federal level that finds its roots back in the 19th century," said Will McKenna, executive director of Afya Baltimore, which oversees two charter schools in the city. "The immediate impact, of course, is in the schools and in the classrooms, which are filled with anxiety and uncertainty."
McKenna said that most principals he knows are "just trying to plow ahead and do the best they can to make sense of things."
The request for the delay comes as criticism of the quick implementation of the Common Core has grown. Lawmakers have introduced several bills in the General Assembly, including legislation that would repeal the Common Core and require the state to ask the U.S. Department of Education for a one-year moratorium from testing.
None of the bills are expected to pass.
State school Superintendent Lillian Lowery told board members Tuesday that federal leaders are giving states some wiggle room in how they institute reforms, but that they don't want them to back away from previous commitments.
Gov. Martin O'Malley issued a statement Tuesday saying that he supported the delay and that the state was committed to moving ahead with school reforms that include improving teacher evaluations. The local superintendents also came out in support of the proposal Tuesday.
Previous teacher evaluations took into account a host of factors, from how well organized teachers are to how effectively they present the material to students.
But in the past several years, the federal government has used grants and other measures to encourage states to move to a new model that bases about 50 percent of evaluations on student performance, including on state tests.
Teachers and principals are already developing measures to judge how much students are learning to use as part of their evaluations.
Those goals, called Student Learning Objectives, are being put in place this year for the first time. They will represent about 30 percent of a teacher's evaluation. For instance, if an elementary school is performing poorly on the state tests in fourth-grade math, the teachers in the school will set goals for improvement over the course of the year.
The tension between the state and teachers dates to 2010, when the state made commitments to the reforms under the federal Race to the Top program, which most state teachers unions did not sign off on.
The Maryland General Assembly passed a law, intended to help the state get federal Race to the Top dollars, that requires that student test scores be a "significant" factor in evaluations, but does not stipulate the percentage.
The state had told federal leaders it would be 30 percent, but this year has reduced that figure to 20 percent.
State school board President Charlene Dukes said the entire board is solidly behind the 20 percent goal. Board member James DeGraffenreidt said he believes teachers are against any use of tests in the evaluation process and have not provided an alternative suggestion.
If the state refuses to live up to its commitment to reforms, DeGraffenreidt said, it will risk about half a billion dollars in federal dollars for Maryland schools.