K-12 Assessment and Teacher Evaluation: Lessons from Tim’s Fifth Grade Class

By: Matt Chapman
Tim is a 5th grade teacher in the Portland Public Schools.  I met him while helping to find funding so that his students could continue classes into the summer. Tim has 31 students, only two of whom speak English at home.  He was justifiably proud of those who had recently emigrated to the U.S. from Africa, and were now able to read.  Others had made great progress, but would likely regress without a continuation of their studies.  I found Tim genuinely inspirational – the kind of teacher that motivates me to come to work each day in the belief that I can be part of helping them help kids learn.
But Tim also shared his frustration with the recent administration of Oregon’s state accountability test (Oregon Assessment of Knowledge and Skills or OAKS).  While it purports to be adaptive, it is confined to grade level measures. As a result, educators can only see whether or not students are achieving what’s expected of a typical 5th grader. They need additional measures to understand what students have actually learned and where they need additional support. Tim reflected sadly on how hopeless his students were as they began the process, knowing that despite their great progress they would be deemed failures because they were not yet performing at grade level.
Tim’s students are not the only ones at risk of being labeled failures. As Oregon accedes to the federal No Child Left Behind (NCLB) waiver requirements, a material portion of Tim’s evaluation as a teacher will be based on this same narrowly focused test. And for that element, Tim too will be deemed unsatisfactory, rather than being celebrated as the hero he actually is.
Stories like Tim’s illustrate three critical aspects of teacher evaluations as we try to take measures of student achievement into account.
1. Use appropriate assessments to measure student performance.
Some types of data are not good measures for purposes beyond their primary function. The grade-level focus of OAKS aligns with NCLB requirements and is not inherently problematic for that purpose. But OAKS, like all high stakes state assessments, is a proficiency status test—meaning it demonstrates whether or not a student is meeting established grade level norms—and it tells us very little about how teachers have performed.  Instead, as has often been pointed out, using this data incents teachers to focus efforts on the kids just below proficiency rather than teaching all students irrespective of current performance. For student assessment data to be relevant to evaluating teacher performance it must at a minimum cover the range of student performance, measuring both below and above the grade level to reflect the reality of today’s students.
2. Build teacher evaluations on multiple measures of student knowledge and teacher effectiveness.
Tim’s story illustrates how important it is to base teacher evaluations on multiple measures – including many that don’t provide the deceptively satisfying output of a number.  I have had the opportunity to observe many classrooms over the years, and it takes very little time to tune into the tone and interchange that is underway. Peer observation, instructional rounds and other methods of in-depth evaluation measures provide qualitative feedback that complements a range of student performance data—formative, interim and summative. (In a 2012 study conducted by Grunwald Associates for NWEA, both teachers and parents said that formative and interim assessments were considerably more valuable than summative assessments.)
3. Use student assessment data to help educators improve their practice.
For Tim’s students, the reality that they were doomed to fail with no recognition of their progress was extremely discouraging.  And the same reaction should be expected when we position assessments not as a means to help teachers get better but as a means of punishment and a basis for dismissal. Student assessment data, when tied to professional development, can be a very positive and affirming event for teachers. Teachers teach because they want to help children learn.  And they are eager for data and tools that will help them be even better at their chosen task.  As Vicki Phillips of the Gates Foundation and Randi Weingarten of the American Federation of Teachers recently articulated in a joint position paper, assessment needs to be part of teacher development – a means to improve – as its primary purpose.
Teacher evaluation systems do not have to be confrontational or punitive. They can be constructive ways to identify strengths upon which teachers can build, and challenges that they need to address. This is true of every personnel evaluation system, and there is no reason we can’t approach teaching – one of our most important and deserving professions – from the same perspective.
As President and CEO, Matt Chapman leads the non-profit Northwest Evaluation Association (NWEA) in achieving its mission of partnering to help all kids learn. Matt has combined his career in business with a volunteer career focused on education, including the development of a program for street youth with an award-winning alternative school and service on the boards of the University of Portland and All Hands Raised (Portland Schools Foundation).

Student Data and Educator Evaluation: Focus on Learning and Professional Growth
Across the country, school districts have responded to state and federal calls for heightened accountability in part by reshaping educator evaluation systems. Increasingly, district leaders are introducing student assessment data into the formulas used to inform these processes. In this three-part guest series, leaders at the not-for-profit Northwest Evaluation Association (NWEA) consider the impact of using data from tests designed for instructional purposes to guide educator evaluations and call for a renewed focus on student learning and professional growth for teachers.
See the first two installments of NWEA’s three part educator evaluation series:

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