Nearly 20 percent of school districts across the state have changed their teacher evaluation plans since adoption — with an increasing number cutting back on tests associated with evaluations.
Since January, the State Education Department has approved revised plans for more than 130 districts out of nearly 700 statewide, according to a spokesman. More than half of the changes have come this school year, and more districts are in the process of revising their plans ahead of a March deadline, the spokesman said.
The state isn’t yet tallying how plans have been altered, but a review of plans posted online reveals that while some of the changes are only minor wording tweaks, many others reflect a trend toward nixing tests. Interviews with teachers, union officials, and district officials from across the state confirm the trend.
The state’s new teacher evaluation rules require that 40 percent of teachers’ annual ratings be based on their students’ performance. Many districts initially opted to test students at the beginning and end of the year to measure student growth, in addition to administering state reading and math tests. But now, having experienced the burden of testing all students in all subjects, some are taking advantage of a provision in the rules to increase the weight of state reading and math test scores.
Their changes, which local teachers unions must accept, roll back a major compromise about how student growth is measured. They also portend possible teacher evaluation changes for New York City, where the testing burden has been lighter but has still garnered criticism from parents, educators, and Mayor-elect Bill de Blasio.
In most districts across the state, one of the first results of new teacher evaluation systems last year affected students most of all.
“They came to school and took a bunch of tests,” said Adele Bovard, superintendent of the 9,000-student Webster Central School District outside Rochester. “It was a tough way to start off the school year for our students.”
Bovard estimated that the district developed more than 100 new tests for its 2012-2013 evaluations. Other districts developed dozens of their own tests or shelled out local funds to buy tests from third-party vendors.
This year, Webster did away with all of its new tests. “We are a much happier district because of this change,” Bovard told lawmakers earlier this year.
The changes sought by upstate districts have been contagious. Bovard was invited to present Webster’s new model to the teachers union in nearby Rochester, a school district of 30,000 students. Union President Adam Urbanski liked the model so much that he signed off on the changes in the middle of this school year.
“It didn’t take a lot of convincing,” Urbanski said of the new plan, which was approved Nov. 22. “Because at the very least, no matter how it worked out, teachers and students were spared needless testing.”
Unintended consequences of local control
The new tests were either bought or developed in order to comply with the state’s teacher evaluation law, which mandates that one measure of student growth is set by the state and another is set locally. The distinction was once a major source of disagreement between the New York State United Teachers union and Gov. Andrew Cuomo, who wanted the state to retain control of how student learning was measured in evaluations. NYSUT successfully argued in court that some local control would lead to a stronger evaluation system, leading to the current arrangement.
The union wanted assessments that educators tend to prefer, such as portfolios, to count for the local portion of the evaluations. But to accommodate a tight implementation schedule, many districts simply bought or developed tests for each grade and subject.
“I’m not going to lie, a lot of us took the easy way out and took the third-party test provider because there was a very tight timeline,” said Patrick Michel, who runs a group of 15 small school districts outside Albany.
After a year of giving the tests a try, however, districts are saying they were a mistake — at least for now. “Last year we got lots of feedback around there being too much standardized testing for the local part of evaluations,” said Michel, whose districts began cutting out tests this school year.
“You don’t know what you don’t know,” said Anita Murphy, Rochester’s deputy superintendent.
An increased role for state tests
To replace the tests, many districts are turning to a provision in the evaluation law that allows districts to use state test scores for the local growth measure as long as the scores are used in a different way from the state’s measure.
For example, the rules allow districts to evaluate groups of teachers based on the performance of all students in the school on either the math or English state tests. In order to set student benchmarks at the beginning of the year, the rules also allow districts to swap out pre-assessments for “historical data,” which is compiled from academic results in previous school years. State tests at the end of the year then may take the place of post-assessments.
The trend back toward a reliance on state tests has some of Cuomo’s allies crowing that the governor was right all along to argue that student growth should be measured according to state tests.
“Sometimes it turns out the grass under your feet was actually greener than you thought,” said Joe Williams, executive director of Democrats for Education Reform.
Williams said the state union could very easily help schools in districts that haven’t cut back on testing by agreeing to allow state test scores to count more. “If NYSUT wants fewer tests they should encourage it through bargaining,” he said.
NYSUT spokesman Carl Korn called the criticism “incredibly disingenuous” and said it is up to local unions to negotiate the kinds of changes they want to see in their districts.
“We’ve always said our locals are autonomous,” Korn said, adding, “We’ve always supported authentic assessments as better indicators of student growth than standardized bubble tests.”
A smaller shift for New York City
In New York City, the testing burden is less extreme than some other districts’. When State Education Commissioner John King imposed a plan for city schools in June, nearly a year after other districts had begun implementing their plans, his rules provided more ways to measure student learning than just tests.
On top of that, the city has taken steps to shield schools from being required to administer a new set of tests while they focus on other parts of implementation. City officials had wanted to make locally developed tests part of a menu of options for schools, but withheld some when they realized that King would require them in certain instances. (That decision has had consequences of its own.)
Some performance assessments are being used and their administration, however constrained, are still causing headaches. Schools recently wrapped up grading the tests tied to the assessments, which have stirred high-profile protests and boycotts from parents, teachers and students.
“The biggest issue is that the testing is an arduous process,” said Gary Nusser, an assistant principal at M.S. 88 in Brooklyn, whose 1,200 students each took two pre-assessments each this year, one in science and one in social studies.
Even as they have sought to reduce tests, current officials have also defended using “pre-tests” as part of the performance assessment process.
“Yes, students do the pre-[assessments] and the post-[assessments] and that’s part of something that you do for evaluating teachers,” Chancellor Dennis Walcott said last week at City Council hearing on testing policies. “There’s nothing wrong with that.”
Nusser said the Department of Education regularly asks him for feedback about the evaluations, and he said he hopes the scoring issues are considered in any future changes.
That’s a distinct possibility. De Blasio has said he wants to “put the standardized testing machine in reverse,” and further changes to reduce testing related to teacher evaluations could be on the table when he takes office next month. UFT President Michael Mulgrew said recently that one of his first priorities after de Blasio becomes mayor is renegotiating the city’s evaluation system — just hours after praising a group of schools that administer almost no state tests at all.