Rush to reform

To boost Maryland's chances of winning millions of dollars in federal education aid this year, the General Assembly passed legislation making growth in student achievement count for 50 percent of teacher evaluations. The change paid off last month, when Maryland was awarded $250 million from the Obama administration's Race to the Top competition.

But winning was just the beginning. Now schools have to figure out how to measure student performance in a way that allows them to say exactly which teachers are effective in the classroom and which aren't. And it turns out that's a lot more complicated than it sounds.

The states that have had the most success in measuring teacher effectiveness use a method called value-added evaluation. That system uses a mathematical formula to predict how well each child should perform based on his or her performance in the same subject the previous year. If a child performs better than expected the following year, that growth in achievement is attributed to the value added by the teacher's effectiveness; if a child performs worse than expected, that's chalked up to a deficit of teacher effectiveness.

Up to now, the Maryland School Assessments and the High School Assessments, have been the primary tools Maryland has used for judging student performance. But the MSA and the HSA exams are of only limited usefulness in picking out the growth in achievement of individual students or the effectiveness of individual teachers. From a technical standpoint, they are poorly suited to help school systems judge teachers' effectiveness by how well students perform from year to year.

For one thing, more than half of all teachers in the state don't even teach subjects or grade levels that are covered by the MSA and HSA. The MSA, for example, is given to students in grades three through eight, but it only tests two subjects: reading and math. It doesn't test first- and second-graders at all, nor does it cover social studies, foreign languages, history, music, art and physical education. How are teachers in those subjects to be evaluated?

An even more serious problem for Maryland educators trying to comply with the new state law tying teacher effectiveness to test scores is way both the MSA and HSA are structured. Rather than assign a numerical value to score individual students' performance, the MSA, for example, rates them as below proficient, proficient and above proficient. This allows schools to measure how many students are performing at or above grade level, which was a requirement under the No Child Left Behind Law, but it's too coarse a measure to register the yearly growth in achievement of any individual student. Eventually, both tests will have to be restructured using new metrics and the higher standards recently developed by the National Governors Association.

Finally, the state doesn't have the kind of vertically aligned data management system it will need to tie the effectiveness of individual teachers to the growth in achievement of individual students. Part of the Race to the Top grant will go toward creating such a system, but between higher standards, restructured exams and the need to negotiate the entire package with local teachers unions, there are so many moving parts in this reform process that it could be 2014 before all the elements are in place.

In the meantime, a working group appointed by the governor has begun planning the transition from the current patchwork system of teacher evaluations to one that meets the reform goals of Race to the Top and complies with state law. There'll be plenty of midnight oil burned before the kinks in the new system are worked out. But that's no surprise, really, since what Maryland is attempting is just what RTTT was designed to encourage -- literally to compress a decade's worth of school reform into the span of just a few months.

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