Reading the tea leaves: ESSA and the use of test scores in teacher evaluation

Since the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) was penned into law in December, 2015, there has been a surge in legislative activity related to the use of student test scores in teacher evaluations.  ESSA devolves the authority to determine teacher evaluations to states. Further, it prohibits the federal government from mandating the use of student growth measures (SGMs) in educator evaluations through policy levers such as No Child Left Behind waivers and Race to the Top grants. Since ESSA’s passage, legislative activity reflects several trends: postpone SGMs, reduce the percent of a teacher’s evaluation based on SGMs, and eliminate use of SGMs. Determining whether this is the beginning of the end for SGMs or just a new phase will depend on how one views the tea leaves. Let me tell you what I see…

Hitting the pause button

The New York Board of Regents voted just weeks after the adoption of ESSA to suspend the use of SGMs in educator evaluations until 2019.  In Tennessee, a proposed bill would delay the use of SGMs in teacher evaluations for two years, and legislation currently under consideration in Florida would pause the use of SGMs until the 2017-2018 academic year. 

Reducing the growth measure

In Georgia, there are two teacher evaluation bills before state legislators: Senate Bill 364 would decrease SGMs from 50 percent to 30 percent of a teacher’s evaluation, and Senate Bill 355 would require that SGMs count for no more than 10 percent of a teacher’s evaluation.

Eliminating the growth measure – partially or entirely

A proposal before the North Carolina State Board of Education (SBE) would purge the SGM component from North Carolina’s teacher evaluation system.  Under the plan, SGM data will still be provided to educators for informational (formative) purposes, but these data will no longer be a component of teachers’ ratings. The SBE will act on the proposal later this March, but there seems to be little to no opposition to it. 

In Colorado, Senate Bill 16-105 would jettison growth measures based on state tests and give districts discretion to eliminate the use of SGMs based on locally selected tests.  The bill would also cap at 20 percent the proportion of a teacher’s evaluation that could be based on district SGMs.  Later this March, the Alaska Board of Education will likely pass a proposal that will abandon a pilot planned for this spring to incorporate SGM data into teacher evaluations.  Additionally, lawmakers in Connecticut and Utah are seeking to amputate student test scores from teacher evaluations. 

Conversely, however, the Alabama legislature is considering a bill that will initiate the use of SGMs as 25 percent of a teacher’s evaluation.  After a lively public hearing, the Senate Education and Youth Affairs Committee last week voted narrowly 5-4 to move the bill – which also extends time to tenure and provides bonuses to schools demonstrating significant improvement – out of committee and to the full Senate for a vote.

Is ESSA the beginning of the end for student growth measures?

Despite all of the aforementioned policy and legislative action, on March 1, 2016 the Chief Council of State School Offers (CCSSO) released the Principles for Teacher Support and Evaluation Systems (which echoes many of the recommendations from the Southern Regional Education Board’s February 2016 report).  In addition to advancing the use of data to support and develop teachers, the Principles promote the use of multiple, valid and reliable measures in teacher evaluations, including “evidence of student learning” (p. 5).

Researchers also have much to say on the use of SGM evidence.  Dr. Audrey Amrein-Beardsley and I have a forthcoming edited volume from Palgrave (expected release late this summer) that examines the intersection of policy and practice with regards to the use of SGMs for teacher evaluation (the Brown Center Chalkboard’s Michael Hansen is one of the authors).  Although some of the featured authors (including Hansen) retain hope that SGMs—in some form—can be useful in teacher evaluation, many authors highlight research findings that indicate a host of challenges to their use, especially teacher recruitment and retention issues, decreased teacher morale, teacher avoidance of serving students and schools most in need, and issues with teachers gaming the evaluation system. 

SGMs, however, are typically part of multi-measure evaluation systems and do not operate in isolation.  Researchers from the National Bureau of Economic Research found that Washington D.C.’s teacher evaluation system, known as IMPACT, has likely improved student achievement by replacing low-performing teachers with better-performing teachers.  The report does not distinguish the role of SGMs—versus other measures in the multi-measure IMPACT system—in influencing the exit of low-performing teachers. However, a study out of Harvard’s Center for Education Policy Research reports that in math (but not reading) SGMs in teacher evaluations were linked to statistically significantly higher scores on tests aligned with Common Core. 

Researchers Eric Taylor and John Tyler found that teachers—particularly teachers who perform relatively poorly—tend to improve their performance in response to evaluation data.  This suggests that teacher evaluations can be powerful – and that puts more pressure on states to figure out teacher evaluation in light of ESSA. 

The coming months and years will likely be contentious and thrilling as states work out how best to evaluate teachers and what—if any—role student growth measures will have in teacher evaluation.Based on my reading of the tea leaves, I believe that states will continue to tinker with the components and weights of teacher evaluations for some time to come, especially since a recent report indicates that even in states that have implemented major changes to their teacher evaluation systems, less than three percent of teachers are rated below proficient.  The study indicates that there is more work to be done to design evaluation systems that will accurately and reliably distinguish amongst levels of teacher performance.  That said, I think that SGMs are unlikely to gain more prominence in teacher evaluation systems than they now have.  If anything, I think that—as the aforementioned legislative activity suggests—the role of SGMs in teacher evaluation will become more limited—and rightly so, in my opinion.