School & District Management

Districts Tying Principal Reviews to Test Scores

By Jaclyn Zubrzycki — March 05, 2013 6 min read
Nikki Hudson, left, the academic coordinator at Lida Hooe Elementary School in Dallas, compares notes with Principal Linda Saenz during a principal-evaluation session.

A growing number of school districts—including large ones like those in Chicago, Dallas, Los Angeles, and Hawaii—have become recent converts to new principal-evaluation systems that tie school leaders’ appraisals to student test scores.

As of this school year, student achievement accounts for 40 percent to 50 percent of principals’ evaluations in each of those school systems, while district leaders in a number of other places are preparing to make similar changes in coming school years.

The switch to the new-breed evaluation systems comes on the heels of efforts nationwide to incorporate student-achievement measures into teachers’ evaluations. For principals, the move is being prompted by U.S. Department of Education grant programs such as Race to the Top, which requires states or districts to tie principal effectiveness “in significant part” to growth in student achievement, and by No Child Left Behind waivers, which allow states flexibility on some requirements of the federal law in exchange for adopting certain policies, including revamped educator-evaluation procedures.

Test scores are generally one of several measures of student achievement used in new principal evaluations, which also look at school climate surveys and improvements in teachers’ effectiveness, among other gauges.

“There’s this collective realization that it’s more complex than just a single test score,” said Dick Flanary, the deputy executive director of programs and services at the National Association of Secondary School Principals, a professional group based in Reston, Va. But both the NASSP and the Alexandria, Va.-based National Association of Elementary School Principals, which released recommendations about principal evaluations last fall, say that making 40 percent or more of a principal’s evaluation dependent on student-achievement measures is inappropriate, even if that chunk of the review relies on more than just state test scores.

Desiree Arias, left, a principal evaluator for the Dallas public schools, talks with Principal Marisa Saenz on a visit to Ms. Saenz's school, Lida Hooe Elementary.

Meanwhile, researchers and district leaders hope the new systems will help clarify needs and expectations for school leaders.

“We know that teachers have the biggest impact on outcomes for children—and right behind that is the principal,” said Jeannine French, the deputy superintendent of the 25,000-student Pittsburgh district, which is also revamping its evaluation system to include student growth. “It’s not just an evaluation tool. ... It’s about making sure principals have the information they need about practice so they can very specifically improve so we get better results for our children.”

Though there is less research on principal evaluations than on teacher evaluations, the changes represent a step in the right direction, said Matthew Clifford, a senior research scientist at the American Institutes for Research, in Washington, who is working on evaluation guidelines for districts in Illinois and Maine. “Many places have systems for evaluating principals that are not systematic and aren’t tied to standards right now, often based on reputation and on anecdotal evidence. Now, we’re building an evaluation system that’s more systematic.”

Half and Half?

Thirty-four states have passed laws involving principal evaluation in the past five years, and 22 will be implementing new systems within the next two years, said Mr. Clifford. None of the relevant federal Education Department programs specifies what percentage of a school leader’s evaluation needs to be tied to test scores, and states differ in how they do that, he said.

In Florida, for instance, where evaluations were initially tied mainly to state standardized tests, the system was adjusted to factor in nontested subjects such as reading and mathematics, said Mr. Clifford. Some states, including Washington and Minnesota, require student achievement to count for 35 percent, while in Louisiana and Colorado, it’s 50 percent. The national principals’ associations call for student growth to account for between 25 percent and 35 percent of a principal’s evaluation, which they say more closely reflects how much a principal can actually affect test scores.

See Also

For more on districts are striving to ensure fairness and accuracy in evaluations, see “New Evaluations for Principals, New Equity Issues,” March 6, 2013.

The remainder of principals’ evaluations generally deal with measures of practice and behavior. “The percent thing is more politically based than research-based,” said P. Fred Storti, the executive director of the Minnesota Elementary School Principals’ Association. Test scores are an important part of the principal’s role, he said, “but there’s a lot you can’t boil down to a test score.”

Still Experimenting

Though the changes to evaluations are picking up speed, states have generally dedicated less time to working out and implementing principal evaluations than they have to teacher evaluations, said Benjamin Fenton, the co-founder of New Leaders, a New York-based nonprofit focused on school leadership. “I think that’s going to be a place of bigger focus,” he said.

As a rule, “states and districts are looking at student outcomes to be a heavier weight or a larger official weight in evaluations,” Mr. Fenton said.

Even so, principals’ evaluations have stirred less controversy than teachers’, perhaps because principals are fewer in number—nationwide, there are about 95,000 principals as compared with 3.5 million teachers—and mostly not unionized, Mr. Clifford said.

Principals are also used to being held accountable for the performance of their schools, said John Youngquist, the director of principal talent development in the 84,000-student Denver district, which plans to tie student test scores to evaluations starting next year. “It’s empowering to principal managers and principals when there’s an agreed-upon set of understandings.”

Context and Support

In Dallas, where student achievement will now account for 40 percent of school leaders’ evaluations, Superintendent Michael Miles said the new evaluations mirror district priorities. “We value student-achievement results, we value high-quality instruction, we value parental engagement, we value positive and supportive school cultures,” he said.

The evaluation system there goes hand in hand with new principal-recruitment and professional-development programs, Mr. Miles said, and with more support and training for evaluators. Each evaluator is now responsible for fewer principals—10 to 12—in hopes that the appraisals will be more in-depth and accurate.

The superintendent said that while Dallas initially planned to have a system based half on student achievement and half on principal practice, feedback from principals led him to shift the balance toward practice. Mr. Miles said that a survey of the district’s principals showed them evenly split among those who approved of, disapproved of, and were neutral toward the new system. “Whenever you have more-rigorous evaluation systems, there’s going to be some anxiety,” he said. But “I think that most are at least willing to give it a try.”

In Hawaii, as in Chicago and Los Angeles, student achievement accounts for half of principals’ evaluations, said Ronn Nozoe, the deputy superintendent of Hawaii’s education department, which is the single statewide district responsible for 180,000 students. The student-achievement component will be based partly on schoolwide median growth on the state test and partly on a measure chosen from a list that includes ACT scores and graduation rates.

Mr. Nozoe said that developing the system had been a collaborative effort with the state principals’ union and Hawaii is also focused on providing professional development aligned with the new requirements. “Supporting principals to support their teachers and support their students is by far the most important work we can do,” Mr. Nozoe said.

Coverage of leadership, expanded learning time, and arts learning is supported in part by a grant from The Wallace Foundation, at www.wallacefoundation.org.
A version of this article appeared in the March 06, 2013 edition of Education Week as Principal Appraisals Get a Remake

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