Special Report

‘Race to Top’ Guidelines Stress Use of Test Data

By Michele McNeil — July 24, 2009 8 min read

The U.S. Department of Education’s proposed guidelines for awarding $4 billion in Race to the Top money send a strong message that any state hoping to land a grant must allow student test scores to be used in decisions about teacher compensation and evaluation.

According to draft plans outlined by department officials on Friday, states would be judged on 19 education reform criteria, from how friendly their charter school climates are to whether they cut state K-12 funding this year.

But only two criteria would be absolute requirements: States must have been approved by the Education Department for stabilization funds from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (most already have been), and states must not have any laws in place barring the use of student-achievement data for evaluating teachers and principals.

See Also

Read the accompanying Commentary from Joanne Weiss, the U.S. Department of Education’s Race to the Top director,

Education’s ‘Race to the Top’ Begins

States not meeting those two absolutes would be ineligible to compete for aid from the Race to the Top Fund, a small but highly coveted slice of some $100 billion in federal economic-stimulus aid for education. That policy could eliminate California and New York—big states with powerful congressional delegations and a lot of students, but with legal firewalls between student and teacher data.

Being able to link teacher and student data is “absolutely fundamental—it’s a building block,” U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan said in an interview. “We believe great teachers matter tremendously. When you’re reluctant or scared to make that link, you do a grave disservice to the teaching profession and to our nation’s children.”

Timetable for Grants

So far, those criteria are just proposals. The public will have 30 days to comment before the Education Department makes them final in October.

States would have 60 days to apply for the first round of grants, with applications due in December. Awards would be made by the end of March. The second wave of grants would go out in September 2010, with applications due in late spring. A state that won a phase-one grant would not be eligible to win a phase-two grant.

The state’s governor would have to officially apply for the money, but the state education chief and the president of the state education board would also be required to sign off. Notably, one of the criteria states would be judged on is whether they have statewide backing for their reform plans, including from teachers’ unions. A letter of endorsement from the state union would be evidence of such support.

A winning state could use half the award however it wished, but half would have to be distributed to school districts based on the formula for the Title I program for disadvantaged students. The money would not, however, have to be spent according to Title I rules.

There will be a separate competition for the $350 million of the Race to the Top Fund that Mr. Duncan has said will be used to help spur a movement for common student assessments. Also, details will be announced later for a $650 million innovation-grant program for school districts that is not part of the fund.

The fact that the Race to the Top Fund is just $4.35 billion of the $100 billion in education aid in the $787 billion recovery act passed by Congress in February belies the fund’s importance. Mr. Duncan is using these competitive grants to cajole states into making specific policy moves, such as lifting caps on the expansion of charter schools and tapping rainy-day funds rather than cutting state funding to K-12 schools. (“Racing for an Early Edge,” July 15, 2009.)

The education secretary has been crisscrossing the nation for months, making dozens of speeches foreshadowing how his department would determine which states get the money. The list of criteria, therefore, is fairly predictable, revolving around the four “assurances” that states were required to make to receive stimulus money. They call for states to adopt internationally benchmarked standards; improve the recruitment, retention, and rewarding of educators; improve data collection; and turn around the lowest-performing schools.

States that have signed on to the common-standards movement being spearheaded by the National Governors Association and the Council of Chief State School Officers would be given preference under the Education Department’s draft. All but Alaska, Missouri, South Carolina, and Texas have done so. (“46 States Agree to Common Academic Standards Effort,” June 10, 2009).

States that allow alternative-certification routes for teachers and principals, and have merit-pay plans for educators, also would be looked on favorably. States also would be judged on whether they used their share of the $39.5 billion State Fiscal Stabilization Fund on education reform efforts, rather than plugging budget holes.

Although Mr. Duncan has hammered on the issue of charter school caps, which he wants removed, states also would be judged on how equitably they fund charter schools compared with regular public schools, and on how much funding they provide for charter school facilities. Those criteria may answer some charter school advocates’ concerns that Mr. Duncan was focusing too much on caps and ignoring other components of of what advocates deem good charter school policy.

Use of Test Scores

Secretary Duncan had also stressed his disapproval of states that have laws barring the use of student-achievement data in teacher-evaluation decisions, but the proposed criteria go further: Having such a law would automatically disqualify a state. At least two states have such laws on the books: California and New York.

“I hope states that don’t presently meet the eligibility will decide to take the steps necessary to meet it. It’s the right policy to take our education system to the next level,” said U.S. Rep. George Miller, a Democrat and the chair of the House Education and Labor Committee, whose home state of California has such a law.

The idea behind linking individual teachers to student data is to determine the extent to which teachers are contributing to students’ achievement growth. In theory, such “value added” systems can filter out elements such as students’ ethnicity or family economic levels that have a correlation with academic performance.

The two states’ laws on the matter differ somewhat. California prohibits its newly established teacher-identification database from being used for decisions about teacher pay, promotion, evaluation, or other employment matters.

In New York, state legislators barred the use of student-achievement data in tenure decisions. That law is scheduled to sunset in 2010, according to the state department of education.

Teachers’ unions harbor concerns about the technical quality of the tests that would be used to judge their members’ performance, as well as the validity of many value-added methodologies.

Although in recent weeks both Mr. Duncan and leaders of the two national teachers’ unions have underscored the need to collaborate on reforms, the notion of using test scores in pay and evaluation is an area in which there may be fundamental differences between the Obama administration and its union allies.

Policy resolutions approved by the 3.2 million-member National Education Association eschew the use of student test-score data in pay and evaluation decisions. NEA officials would not comment until they had reviewed the proposed criteria.

The president of the 1.4 million-member American Federation of Teachers, Randi Weingarten, has in the past said that student test-score data should be used primarily for informative and instructional purposes. (“Growth Data for Teachers Under Review,” Oct. 22, 2008.)

More recently, she has said student-achievement results do have a place in evaluations, but must be incorporated in a way that is fair to all teachers—including those who teach subjects not covered by states’ standardized-testing programs.

In an interview, Ms. Weingarten demurred from commenting specifically on the proposal. “What I’ve learned about Washington is that you actually have to wait to see the exact language,” she said.

Other commentators felt that the proposed guidance sent a clear signal to the teachers’ unions.

“This is clearly poking the unions in the eye,” said Michael J. Petrilli, the vice president for national programs and policy at the Washington-based Thomas B. Fordham Institute. “What’s so good about this issue is there’s not a lot of nuance. Either you’re allowed to use this information for evaluations or you’re not.”

Although the criterion on linking teachers and student data would be an all-or-nothing eligibility requirement, still unresolved is whether any of the remaining criteria would be given more weight than others, and if so, which ones.

And, while states would be judged heavily on their plans for the Race to the Top money, it’s still unresolved how Education Department officials would balance a state’s proposed reform plan and the policies it already has in place. The department would, however, give extra weight to proposals that focused on science, technology, engineering, and math, known as the STEM subjects.

“We’re not just looking for a plan but a commitment, … what you are doing now,” Mr. Duncan said. “This is not about the hypothetical. You must demonstrate to us your plans, ideas, and capacity to deliver on this.”

Judging the applications would be a peer-review panel made up of education experts from outside the federal department. The applications would ask for evidence for the criteria, such as financial documents and copies of state laws, with the states’ respective attorneys general having to sign off on the laws.

Staff Writer Stephen Sawchuk contributed to this story.

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A version of this article appeared in the August 12, 2009 edition of Education Week as ‘Race to Top’ Guidelines Stress Use of Test Data


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