Teaching Profession

Most States Have Walked Back Tough Teacher-Evaluation Policies, Report Finds

By Madeline Will — October 08, 2019 5 min read
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It has been a decade since researchers declared that nearly all teachers were rated satisfactory in evaluations, and advocates began pushing to toughen evaluations to try to improve student achievement. States went whole hog on teacher-evaluation reform, and many incorporated student test scores into educators’ ratings.

But in recent years, the tide has shifted. Since 2015, 30 states have walked back one or more of their teacher-evaluation reforms, according to a new report by the National Council on Teacher Quality, a Washington-based group that is in favor of measuring teacher effectiveness through objective data like test scores.

See also: Are States Changing Course on Teacher Evaluation?

The most significant change involved student test scores. In 2009, only 15 states required student-growth data in teacher evaluations, but by 2015, that number increased to 43 states. However, including student-growth measures, especially standardized test scores, was controversial among educators. Teachers’ unions have raised concerns that some of the factors that go into student test scores are beyond teachers’ control.

Now, 34 states require student-growth measures in teacher evaluations, the NCTQ analysis found. Ten states and the District of Columbia dropped the requirement, while two states (Alabama and Texas) added a student-growth requirement during the same time period.

Among the states that do still require an objective measure of student growth, eight do not currently require that the state standardized test be the source of the data. Instead, districts can use measures like their own assessments, student portfolios, and student learning objectives to determine teachers’ contributions to student growth—something that NCTQ notes can help generate buy-in from educators. But NCTQ also said that shift means states can no longer reliably compare teacher performance across districts.

Other changes to evaluation systems:

  • In 2011, only 17 states required teacher-evaluation systems to have more than two rating categories. Now, most states—41—require at least three rating categories. This has remained relatively stable since 2015, NCTQ says.
  • Similarly, just one state stopped requiring multiple observations of all teachers since 2015. This year, 37 states require some or all teachers to be observed multiple times.
  • Five states have stopped requiring teachers to be evaluated every year. Now, 22 states require annual teacher evaluations.
  • Thirty-one states now require or explicitly allow student survey data to be used in teacher evaluations. This is slightly fewer than in 2015, when 33 states did so. (Just one state, New York, explicitly prohibits the use of student surveys in evaluations.)
  • Four states have stopped requiring teachers with less-than-effective ratings to be put on improvement plans, but two states have added this requirement since 2015. Now, 33 states require that teachers who earn the lowest ratings receive targeted intervention.

“Some of these modifications have weakened and reduced available data, thereby decreasing the ability of policymakers and educational leaders to make meaningful personnel decisions,” NCTQ said in its report. “Unfortunately, it is hard to attribute many of these changes to anything other than a desire to revert to the status quo; that is, to former systems that generally failed to provide the information necessary for individual teachers to improve their practice and for policymakers to make strategic personnel decisions. Further, few of these changes were supported by best practice or research literature.”

Even so, union leaders and others have cheered when states loosened requirements for teacher evaluations, especially in regards to the use of test scores.

And some state policymakers have said the tough policies they implemented had unintended consequences. For instance, Thomas Tomberlin, the director of district human resources at the North Carolina education department, told Education Week in 2017 that “teachers were becoming overly anxious about whether they would get fired or not. [We heard] feedback from the field that teachers were not feeling like they could focus on the improvement aspect of the [student growth] data because they were too concerned about possible employment ramifications.”

Why Is There So Much Change?

On a press call, Elizabeth Ross, the managing director of teacher policy at NCTQ, noted that the timing for many of these changes took place alongside the passage of the Every Student Succeeds Act in 2015. The federal law does not require states to set up teacher-evaluation systems based in significant part on students’ test scores, which was a key part of the U.S. Department of Education’s state-waiver system under the No Child Left Behind Act, the predecessor to ESSA. That year also marked the end of the Obama-era initiative Race to the Top, which incentivized states to include student-test data in their evaluation systems.

There have also been implementation challenges and political backlash in many states.

In fact, New Mexico—a state that was once heralded as having the toughest evaluation system in the country—recently dropped both test scores and teacher attendance from its system. When the evaluation system was first launched, the student-growth component accounted for 50 percent of a teacher’s overall rating, and teachers were only able to take three sick days before the absences counted against their score.

At one point, more than a quarter of the state’s teachers were labeled as “minimally effective” or “ineffective.” Educators (including highly rated teachers) hated the system, with some burning their evaluations in protest in front of the state education department’s headquarters.

When Democratic Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham took office earlier this year, she and her newly appointed state education chief set out to overhaul the evaluation system. According to the Albuquerque Journal, the interim teacher evaluation system that will be used this school year requires teachers to get at least one full observation and three less formal “walkthroughs” with more feedback. Student and family surveys will also remain part of the evaluation.

Even so, Ross said she hopes more states will move in the direction of objective student growth data, annual evaluations, and targeted support for low-rated teachers.

“These decisions are critically important to help ensure that teachers, principals, and policymakers have the information they need to make sure every student has access to an effective teacher,” she said. “Ultimately, it’s a matter of equity.”

Image via Getty, chart by NCTQ

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A version of this news article first appeared in the Teaching Now blog.