Despite huge differences in background and philosophy, almost all of the nine candidates for a seat on the Payson School Board came to a perhaps surprising agreement: They don’t think teacher evaluations ought to rest mostly on student test scores.
All agreed school principals must carefully evaluate teachers, but all of those who addressed the question at a recent school board candidates forum expressed qualms about impending state and federal reforms that will dramatically increase the role student scores play in teacher promotions, layoffs and firings.
The question comes in the shadow of twin efforts by the state and federal government to link teacher pay, promotions and retention to whether students make progress on standardized tests in core academic subjects.
The National “No Child Left Behind” mandates in the next two years will force a complete overhaul of curriculums throughout the country and tie billions of dollars in federal funding to an effort to compel the states to rate teachers based on student test scores.
Meanwhile, the state’s recent reforms that include grading every school based mostly on student scores — especially the weakest students —have made academic testing crucial to schools’ ratings and funding.
But the nine candidates seeking three seats on the Payson School Board all expressed varying degrees of skepticism about basing so much on test scores. They wondered aloud about whether the emphasis on academic testing will crowd out consideration of things like sports, music, art and leadership classes.
Moreover, Payson Unified School District administrators have criticized the heavy reliance on test scores in school rankings issued by State Superintendent John Huppenthal. Julia Randall Elementary Principal Rob Varner, Rim Country Middle School Principal Will Dunman and Director of Special Education Barbara Fitzgerald agreed that testing students is a hit or miss proposition.
They noted that students from households with two college-educated parents on average have much higher test scores, no matter what the school does. However, with 25 percent of the Payson student body defined as homeless and 70 percent on free or reduced lunches, economics and family structure will often affect test scores more than what happens in the classroom, say administrators.
At the candidate forum, Payson High School Key Club moderator Janine Tantimonico asked each candidate to offer an opinion of House Bill 2823, which requires the State Board of Education to adopt model evaluations that would evaluate each teacher based at least in part on student test scores starting in the current school year.
Most of the candidates agreed linking test scores with teacher evaluations is a losing proposition.
“If the purpose (of the evaluation) is improving teaching, it’s a good idea. Teaching towards a standardized test is a mistake. It does not indicate a high level of conviction,” said former teacher Gerald Rutz.
Lynnette Brouwer, also a former teacher, agreed an evaluation is necessary, but testing? “We absolutely need an evaluation. If we do tests, are we measuring their contributions? We need to create whole people, not just do they test well,” she said.
Devin Wala, a self-employed, activist parent, said evaluations are a wonderful idea, if done right. However, he wants to make sure students get the individual attention they need.
Former Payson High School teacher Ron Silverman said, “If we increase rigor across the board, achievement will follow. Students could be absent at the day of testing for family reasons. Tests are not the way to go.”
Both former teacher Carmelita Locke and Gila Community College English teacher Jim Quinlan felt those administering the evaluation should make the decision based on many factors.
“Evaluations need to be balanced,” said Locke. “When a child comes in with primer level in third grade, it’s the teacher’s responsibility to see progress is made. They should also be evaluated on how they get along with their colleagues and parents.”
Quinlan worried that the administrators doing the evaluation had no oversight and could take advantage of the situation. “What role does the principal play in the education of our children?” he asked. “The evaluation tool is put together by a lot of people — it’s pretty scary if the administration is not held accountable.”
Former businesswoman and Payson Tea Party activist Shirley Dye felt schools spend too much money on evaluation tools. She would like to see the process streamlined at the local level.
Incumbent Barbara Underwood had trouble answering due to concerns over a recently deceased middle school teacher. She started to answer, but then stopped to compose herself, over distress about the unexpected death of the popular teacher.