Rating Teachers on Students’ Test Scores Sparks Furor, Legal Action in St. Louis

By Blake Rodman — September 17, 1986 6 min read

A federal district judge is expected to decide in the coming months whether the St. Louis Board of Education violated teachers’ rights last spring when it became the first in the nation to base teacher-employment decisions, in part, on student test scores.

Nationally, many education-improvement proposals have called for greater teacher accountability, and some have suggested that student performance be a consideration in evaluating teachers.

But in the face of strong opposition from the National Education Association and the American Federation of Teachers, few districts have seriously considered using student test scores as part of their teacher evaluation plans. Only St. Louis has put such a system in place, according to union and district officials.

And that system is under attack from the St. Louis Teachers Union, an affiliate of the A.F .T., which filed suit in U.S. District Court in July to block the district’s use of the new evaluation program.

Last week, Jerome B. Jones, the superintendent of schools, defended on national television his district’s use of scores on the California Achievement Test. to evaluate teachers.

“We think an accountability system that looks at product is a critical factor in terms of assuring that our students are appropriately educated,” he said on NBC’S Today show.

But in an interview earlier this month, Evelyn Battle White, president of the S.L.T.U., called the new system “craziness.”

“What [the district] is doing is out of harmony with everything that is known in education,” she said.

National Unions Monitor Case

Officials from the N .E.A. and the A.F.T. say they are monitoring the St. Louis case, because its outcome could determine whether other districts would decide to use student test scores to evaluate teachers for hiring and firing purposes.

“Teacher unions agree that teachers need to be accountable,” said Scott Treibitz, a spokesman for the A.F.T. “But what this district has come up with isn’t the way.” In papers filed with the court,lawyers for the S.L.T.U. assert that students’ test scores are not a valid indication of teacher performance.

By using such scores, the union argues, the district “arbitrarily and capriciously” deprives teachers “of the opportunity for employment, pay increases, and of their good reputations.”

The union is seeking a restraining order that would direct the St. Louis board to halt all “punitive” action against the teachers rated unsatisfactory because of student achievement. It is also seeking new teacher I evaluations for the 1985-86 school year, the elimination of the student achievement factor in teacher evaluations, and $1 million in damage.

District Requests Dismissal

As of last week, U.S. District Judge John F. Nangle had not set a trial date.

Meanwhile, lawyers for the St. Louis school board and Mr. Jones have asked Judge Nangle to dismiss the suit, claiming that decisions regarding teacher evaluations should be left up to local school officials,’ and not the federal courts.

“We have some serious doubts about whether there is a constitutional issue involved here,” said Kenneth C. Brostron, a lawyer for the board and the superintendent. The student-performance factor

was incorporated into an existing evaluation system that had been in use in St. Louis for a number of years, Mr. Jones said in an interview last week. Under that system, teachers had been evaluated by their principal in three areas: instruction, organization and management, and professional working relations.

Last spring, Mr. Jones-with the approval of his board--added a fourth area, “student performance,” and said then that it would take precedence in determining a teacher’s rating, unless mitigating circumstance--such as high rates of absenteeism or special- education needs-were found.

“The teacher’s overall evaluation rating can be no higher than the lowest rating earned [on student performance),” states an overview of the evaluation process distributed to principals.

Standards Modified

At the end of the last school year, more than 90 teachers received unsatisfactory evaluations, 50 of them solely because their students did not meet the required levels of achievement on the test, Mr. Jones said.

At that point, district officials examined the evaluation standards and “modified” them so that the testing requirement did not carry so much weight, the superintendent said.

He said he has now reviewed all the unsatisfactory ratings assigned last spring, and has upgraded to “satisfactory” the 50 that had been based solelyon student achievement.

“No teachers have been marked unsatisfactory exclusively on test score data alone,” he said.

But union officials dispute this claim. “Some teachers in St. Louis are on probation today solely because of their students’ test scores,” Mr. Treibitz said last week.

Teachers are placed on probation if they receive an unsatisfactory rating on their overall evaluation. This freezes their salary and puts them at risk of losing their jobs if they do not improve within 100 days.

According to Mr. Jones, teachers receive a satisfactory rating on the student-performance component of the evaluation if at least 50 percent of their students score at or above the national norm on the California Achievement Test for their grade level, achieve 10 months’ growth or greater over the course of school year, or show positive gains since the previous testing.

An evaluation system for principals also included student test scores for the first time last year. On that component, they were held to a standard similar to the one for teachers, but on a school wide basis.

The California Achievement Test-which tests students in mathematics, reading, and language arts---is only given in grades 2-8 and 10-12. Only elementary teachers in those grades and mathematics and I language arts high-school teachers- roughly 1,800 of the district’s 3,900 teachers-were evaluated on student performance last year.

This year, however, the district will begin using criteria-referenced, subject- area tests to assess the progress of all students in the district. During the 1986-87 school year, Mr Jones said, “all teachers in the district will be evaluated using test-score data.”

‘Reasonable, Fair, and Proper’

In an April 22 memo to the city’s instructional staff, Mr. Jones said, “It is reasonable, fair, and proper that mean achievement of students as reflected on validated tests . _ . be a major consideration to be weighed when evaluating the performance of staff.” But union leaders claim this practice is “educationally unsound,” because it encourages “teaching to the test,” and gives students “the power to fire teachers.”

Said Mr. Treibitz of the A.F.T.: “Once students find out that their test scores determine whether a teacher is maintained or fired, they may decide just to goof off on a test to get an unpopular teacher dismissed.”

union, Ronald A. Berk, a professor of educational research at John Hopkins University who specializes in competency testing and faculty evaluations, states that “it would be exceedingly difficult, if not impossible, to logically, theoretically, or empirically justify the practice as fair and equitable for all teachers.”

But on the Today show, Mr. Jones said St. Louis school officials had carefully reviewed the standards. “We think t.hat we are within the appropriate guidelines,” he said.

A version of this article appeared in the September 17, 1986 edition of Education Week as Rating Teachers on Students’ Test Scores Sparks Furor, Legal Action in St. Louis