Teaching Profession

Tenn. Seeks to Use Student Tests to Show Teacher Quality

May 07, 2003 4 min read

Tennessee is proposing a creative way to help teachers show they are “highly qualified” under federal law: using test-score data to reveal a teacher’s effect on student learning.

Thanks to a sophisticated system in Tennessee, the state for years has been able to measure that effect as part of its so-called “value added” approach. Tennessee officials now hope the federal government will let the state apply the measurement tool to comply with the “No Child Left Behind” Act of 2001.

“It gives the teacher another option,” said Keith D. Brewer, the deputy commissioner of the Tennessee Department of Education.

“The problem we have is that we may have a [certified] teacher who’s had good [student] test scores,” he said, but technically does not meet all the federal requirements to be deemed “highly qualified"—despite having taught the same subject and grade for many years.

“You’ve either got to go back to school ... or go back and take [a] test,” Mr. Brewer said. “We’re proposing another piece to that, [using] the teacher effect to prove that they’re highly qualified.”

The approach would be voluntary for teachers, who would have to sign waivers agreeing to allow the data to be used for that purpose. The test- score information would remain confidential, just as it currently is in Tennessee.

The state board of education was scheduled to take up Tennessee’s overall plan for meeting the teacher and paraprofessional qualification requirements of the federal law on May 2. State officials last week were preparing to send that plan to the federal government.

Showing Competence

Under the No Child Left Behind Act, states must ensure that all teachers in the core academic subjects are highly qualified by the end of the 2005-06 school year. In general, the law, a reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, defines a teacher as “highly qualified” if he or she is fully licensed through a traditional or alternative route and has demonstrated subject-matter competency.

To show such competence, an elementary school teacher must pass a rigorous state test of knowledge and teaching skills in reading/language arts, writing, mathematics, and other areas of the basic curriculum. At the middle and high school levels, a teacher must pass a likewise rigorous test in each academic subject taught, or have a collegiate major or its equivalent in the subject.

The law also allows another approach to showing subject-matter competency for teachers who are not new to the profession. A state can develop a “high, objective, uniform state standard of evaluation,” or HOUSE, according to federal regulations. Tennessee has seized upon that option as the basis for using the state’s value- added data.

While stopping short of signing off on what Tennessee hopes to do, an official at the federal Department of Education suggested that the approach may well work.

“We want to provide flexibility for the states,” said Gretchen C. Slease, who is advising Undersecretary Eugene W. Hickok on teacher-quality issues. “As long as [Tennessee] can justify that the [value- added data] would demonstrate that the teacher has sufficient content knowledge, they are welcome to do that.”

She noted that the HOUSE provision would also allow a state to use a combination of factors to determine the competence of veteran teachers.

“HOUSE is almost like a menu of items that you could get credit for,” Ms. Slease said. For example, she said, a state may take into consideration the teacher’s experience as one factor. “Another could be quality professional development,” she added.

Ms. Slease said she was not aware of any other state currently planning to use a system similar to Tennessee’s to help meet the teacher-qualification requirements.

The Tennessee Value-Added Assessment System tracks the progress of individual students on state tests over time and seeks to tease out the effects of schools and classroom teachers on student performance. The approach was built around methods devised by William L. Sanders, a researcher who previously worked at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville, and now operates out of SAS inSchool, part of the Cary, N.C.-based SAS Institute Software Co.

To gauge a teacher’s effect, achievement from the teacher’s students is aggregated over three years. The state compares the gains the teacher’s students make from year to year against the gains made by a national sample of students, as well as state and district gains.

Tennessee uses the information to help teachers and school leaders improve instruction.

Now, the state has another use in mind.

Kati Haycock, the executive director of the Education Trust, a Washington- based research and advocacy group, said she likes the sound of what Tennessee hopes to do, though she was not familiar with any details of the plan.

“I think the idea is terrific,” she said. “When you think about it, this [law] was really aimed at identifying teachers who were capable of raising student achievement.”

She added: “It seems to me that it’s actually a much more accurate measure of teacher effectiveness than the proxies that most states will use.”

That said, Ms. Haycock cautioned that it would be critical to see where the state wants to draw the line on how much growth in student achievement would suffice for a teacher to be deemed highly qualified.

“If the kids grew one tiny little bit, obviously that’s not adequate. ... But if they’re saying sort of average or better [progress], that’s quite fine,” she said.

Tennessee has not yet set a benchmark for what would constitute sufficient teacher effect.

Mary Ann Blankenship, an assistant executive director of the Tennessee Education Association, said the state’s plans were acceptable to the union.

“This seems to be an option that we could live with,” she said, “as long as the test data remains confidential and is used only for ESEA purposes, and is not used in a broader way ... than Tennessee already uses [it].”

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