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Best Way to Grade New Jersey Teachers Debated

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Hannan Adely, The Record

New Jersey’s adoption of teacher evaluations that relied on student test scores was hailed by Governor Christie as a way to make educators accountable for how much students learned.

Last week, however, under pressure from lawmakers, parents and teacher unions, the governor announced plans to lessen the impact that those test scores will have on judging teachers. But despite the vocal criticism, those who supported the evaluation system say they have not wavered in their commitment to it.

“I think the Board of Education and the community in general supports [evaluations],” said Mark Biedron, president of the state Board of Education. “The question is what system do you use and how much of it and frankly how much do you weigh on tests?”

New Jersey approved an evaluation system a year ago that rates teachers partly by student scores on state tests — with results counting in such high-stakes decisions as whether to grant or take away tenure.

But over the past year, educators have strongly protested that they need more time to adjust to new academic standards and new computer-based state tests. They said they have to teach new material, prepare students for the tests and improve computers and Internet connections.

Lawmakers said they were responding to those concerns when they appealed to the governor for change, but were not backing off strong measures to judge teachers. change, but were not backing off strong measures to judge teachers. Sen. Kevin O’Toole, R-Cedar Grove, said it makes sense to give less weight to test scores until problems with the new tests can be resolved, but that the state will still hold teachers accountable.

Asked about test scores as a measure, O’Toole said, “I don’t think anything can be hard or fast or set in stone. There are some in the education community who think it’s a real metric that can be used, others that think it’s a false metric.”

Christie’s latest proposal is that student test scores count for only 10 percent on teacher evaluations rather than the 30 percent weight that the state Board of Education approved for the coming school year. The weight can be increased up to 20 percent in the following two school years by the Department of Education.

Michael Drewniak, a spokesman for Christie, said the changes were in response to confusion over new tests and evaluation systems. But the changes, he added, “should in no way be interpreted as backing off our desire to improve teacher accountability and instruction.”

In an interview last week, Acting Education Commissioner David Hespe stressed that test scores will remain as one of the measures used to judge teachers, along with student improvement on tests and teacher observations.

“We are going forward as planned,” he said. “It’s just that we’re going to use it as a lesser extent until everyone is comfortable with how it rolls forward.”

Assembly education committee chair Patrick Diegnan, DMiddlesex, said he still supports using student test scores to evaluate teachers but doesn’t think they should be given as much weight as the Christie administration first proposed.

“The administration was adamant in original tenure reform legislation that test scores would be a determining factor,” he said. “I’ve always been a believer that it should be a part of the process but should not be a dominant one.”

New Jersey isn’t alone in changing the way it evaluates teachers. Many states are revising, dumping or delaying the use of test scores to evaluate teachers — largely over concern about the new academic standards adopted in New Jersey and dozens of other states.

Some critics are also urging state leaders to review or to abandon the entire set of standards, known as Common Core, and the tests that go with them. In New Jersey, Christie formed a new commission to study the standards and all federal and state tests that measure what students are learning.

Brian Backstrom, senior policy adviser at the Center for Education Reform in Washington, D.C., said it was “encouraging” that Christie was using a phase-in method, instead of getting rid of the evaluation system altogether.

“It’s a healthy approach because it isn’t a total trashing of a requirement for teachers to be accountable for student performance,” he said.

Poll supports teachers

Many education groups oppose student test scores as measures to rate teachers, arguing they don’t accurately reflect a teacher’s performance and diminish other more important factors, such as poverty, class size or classroom makeup.

Most New Jersey residents side with teachers on the issue, according to results of a Fairleigh Dickinson University poll released this week. Only 20 percent of New Jersey voters say that it is fair to punish teachers based on how their students do on standards-based tests, with 74 percent saying that it is unfair, according to the poll.

Still, 42 percent agree that teachers should be rewarded for their students’ performance on the tests.

But Backstrom said the people criticizing the use of new tests for evaluations may be seeking to avoid accountability measures completely.

“I think the big question to ask teachers unions and others is will they be satisfied with any tests?” he said.

The steps announced by Christie have been hailed as a compromise — a rollback of how much test scores count in teacher evaluations for three years while a task force reviews what students should be learning and how accurately state and federal tests measure that.

Some lawmakers and educators said they also expect the task force to investigate the use of any tests scores for teacher evaluations, although that goal is not specifically stated in the governor’s executive order. Steve Baker, a spokesman for the New Jersey Education Association, said it was related to the overall issue of overemphasis on high-stakes tests that the task force will review. The task force, he said, should “find the best way and most appropriate way to make these measurements,”

He added, “The hope is now that we have this opportunity to take a step back and look at what we’re doing. We want to do it the right way.”