Student Tests Test Teachers

Payson schools shifting teacher grading system

Payson Unified School District Office

Payson Unified School District Office Photo by Andy Towle. |

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The Payson School Board has taken a key first step toward linking teacher job security to student test scores as it scrambles to adapt to new state and federal standards.

The board recently adopted the general framework for a dramatic change in the way the district evaluates teachers and administrators in a high-stakes effort to implement new federal Common Core Standards.

The new federal rules adopted by the state require the district to include student performance on standardized tests in its evaluations of teachers.

The Legislature has adopted rules requiring schools to use those scores to determine anywhere from one-third to one-half of a teacher’s evaluation. The rest of the evaluation will depend on numerous classroom observations, which could occupy a huge chunk of the principal’s time in the future.

Advocates of the new system hope it will ultimately help students.

“The only reason we use this tool is to improve teaching and improve administration skills,” said Superintendent Ron Hitchcock.

The new system of evaluations will replace the current system, which has its own set of critics — especially when the evaluations determine who gets a new contract and who gets laid off as the district’s enrollment dwindles.

For the last three years, principals and teachers have held their collective breath each May, wondering if they will face the chopping block as a result of the seemingly endless succession of layoffs.

Some say the current criteria remain so vague that they’re prone to abuse — allowing administrators to get rid of even good teachers through layoffs, based on politics instead of performance.

One such case involved Payson High social studies teacher Ron Silverman who was laid off in 2012 after he received weak evaluations. Silverman accused the administration of abusing the evaluation process to create a document designed to fire him, rather than give him feedback to become a better teacher.

The new state and federal standards are designed to link teacher pay to student performance. However, critics have raised a host of questions about that approach as well, saying standardized test scores generally reflect student background and motivation, not teaching quality.

National educational reforms and the development of national curriculum standards that supposedly stress critical thinking have driven sweeping changes in teacher evaluation systems nationwide. However, so far no single, standard evaluation process exists.

After next year, Arizona school districts must have in place teacher and principal assessments that are based on accepted, agreed upon parameters. Test scores offer a solution, believe Common Core advocates.

The addition of test scores to a teacher evaluation is completely new locally, although the state has included schoolwide test scores in its ratings of individual schools.

Now, however, individual teachers will have their jobs on the line based on student test scores, although it’s unclear how much weight the district will give the scores and how they will fine tune the measurements.

Districts that have relied on student scores in evaluations elsewhere have struggled with how to measure the progress of individual students and how to not penalize teachers based on their students’ backgrounds and non-school-related challenges.

Moreover, schools elsewhere have struggled with how to evaluate teachers not teaching core academic students for which students take repeated, standardized tests to measure their progress.

In its mandate, the Arizona Legislature did not outline exactly what sort of tests to use. Instead, districts can create their own tests of student achievement.

The Payson School Board on Dec. 17 voted to adopt a set of teacher-principal evaluation forms created by the West Central Regional Service Center (WCRSC).

The WCRSC combines the Mohave, La Paz, Yavapai and Yuma county school districts to provide education services, such as grant writing.

Hitchcock said that the evaluation forms the WCRSC created include all different elements of the Common Core Standards.

The WCRSC form suggests principals should observe each teacher a total of nine times each school year — or about once a month when school is in session.

The district has about 140 certificated teachers — which means the new standards would require the four principals to spend about 1,000 hours each school year in classroom observations. A normal work year totals about 1,900 hours.

Hitchcock told the school board that the district will probably make changes and customize the forms.

“This is not set in stone,” he said.

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