Assessment Opinion

Test Scores Dropped from Definition of Effective Principals

By Justin Baeder — December 19, 2010 1 min read
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The National Association of Elementary School Principals reported to members via email and blog post on Friday that the Department of Education has backed down from including student academic growth, as measured by standardized test scores, from its definition of “effective” and “highly effective” principals:

In September, the Department of Education proposed definitions of "effective" and "highly effective" principals—a scant 200 words that, if enacted, could be used to determine which districts and schools are eligible for federal discretionary education grants. NAESP strongly opposes the definitions, which represent another attempt to hold principals accountable for outcomes far behind their control. More important, our members oppose them as well. In a survey the Association conducted in September, 70 percent of NAESP members say it is inappropriate to define principal effectiveness in significant measure as "at least one grade level in an academic year" of student growth. NAESP heard you loud and clear, and we expressed your opposition in a formal letter to the Department of Education focused on four concerns: •The definitions diminish state and local authority to set criteria for evaluating principals; •They fail to address the intricate nature of a principal's job; •They do not adequately account for school circumstances; and •They still rely too heavily on student standardized test scores.

Nonetheless, it’s likely that many principals will find student growth factored into their evaluations thanks to changes to state laws aimed at receiving RttT funds. I’ll find out in January if and how student growth is part of my forthcoming contract.

NAESP also published some interesting comments from members in the full survey results (PDF). Among them:

I do NOT want the Federal Government dictating what makes me successful in my individual, unique situation. The needs change year to year and what makes someone successful does NOT always look the same. Bottom line is that we all want kids to achieve but to mandate that achievement is not always appropriate or an accurate reflection of the achievement made by a student and/or school." ... "I believe it is shortsighted to create some sort of federal oversight that does not allow for individual needs of schools and districts to be considered." ... "Many of the indicators above are impacted by resource availablty and therefore should not be considered. Also- small schools < 150 kids may not have subgroup numbers that are statistically significant. Definitions and/criteria need to consider rural America." ... "I believe in accountability and the areas above are all important to the work of an effective principal, an enormous task. I think the issue is HOW will those areas be evaluated and by whom. I certainly believe in student growth each year but I do not believe that standardized test scores should be the primary manner of evaluating a principal." ... "I do not think student outcomes over which principals have only loose and indirect influence should be part of principal evaluations, except at the discretion of the principal's immediate supervisor, who might have the information necessary to make such judgments. I don't think federal formulas can usefully evaluate principals on the basis of such criteria as graduation rate - too many factors other than the principal are involved." [this is my comment—JB]

To fully appreciate these quotes, it’s important to realize that principals are conditioned to accept accountability for student learning outcomes. None of us said in our job interviews “I hope scores go up, but if they don’t, it’s not my fault.” When we took on this role, we took on the responsibility to ensure that students learn, and “one year of academic growth” certainly seems like a reasonable (if vague) definition.

As you can see from these comments, though, there is great hesitation among principals about allowing the federal government to narrowly define our work. Teachers tend to react the same way to overly narrow definitions of performance, and rightly so. As I’ve said previously, we need to help the public understand the complexity of our work, while also accepting accountability for the success of our schools.

Kudos to the Department of Education for listening to this feedback from principals. The next step for us to take is to endorse high-quality definitions of excellence in the principalship, such as the National Board Core Propositions for Accomplished Educational Leaders.

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The opinions expressed in On Performance are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.