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An Ocean of Unknowns in Using Student Achievement Data to Evaluate Early Grade Teachers

Published:  May 14, 2013
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More than 20 states now require measures of student achievement to carry significant weight in teachers’ effectiveness ratings – even in the earliest grades, in which children do not participate in state standardized testing. As a result, states and school districts are struggling to find sound methods to measure young students’ learning. In some cases, they are rushing to implement evaluation systems without thinking through the risks, according to our new report, “An Ocean of Unknowns: The Risks and Opportunities in Using Student Achievement Data to Evaluate PreK-3rd Grade Teachers.”

Determining student growth measures for the PreK-3rd grades is among the most complex pieces of teacher evaluation reform. In this early stage of life, children’s developmental growth—their acquisition of physical, cognitive, and social-emotional skills; their base of general knowledge; their strength of persistence and motivation; and their language and literacy ability—is directly linked to their academic growth. So measures of student learning should account for how young children actually learn, and measure more than just reading and mathematics.

There are many experiments underway in states and school districts across the country, but no clear best practice has emerged for using student achievement data to rate the effectiveness of PreK-3rd grade teachers. The report describes the benefits and trade-offs of three general approaches taken in five states (Colorado, Delaware, Florida, Rhode Island and Tennessee) and three school districts (Austin, Tex.; Hillsborough County, Fla., and Washington, D.C.):

  • Student Learning Objectives (SLOs): Typically developed by a teacher and approved by his or her principal. SLOs have three components: measurable goals, a growth target that is set with the baseline performance of the individual student and a specific assessment to measure the students’ progress. This approach is being used in more than 20 states, including Colorado, Delaware and Rhode Island, as well as in the school districts of Austin and Washington D.C. The SLO approach fosters collaboration and shared priorities between teachers and principals, as well as among grade-level teams. But the approach is resource-intensive, requiring new professional development for teachers and principals on identifying or creating high-quality assessments and establishing rigorous but feasible objectives and targets for students to meet. The approach also makes it difficult to compare teachers of the same grade-level within a school and across a district.
  • Creating or identifying new assessments: Some states and districts, including Hillsborough County, Fla. and the state of Tennessee, are expanding assessment coverage to every grade and subject area not subject to existing standardized testing. Implementing new assessments shared by all teachers of the same grade level does make it easier to compare teachers across classrooms and schools and identify those who are effective or struggling. At the same time, this could pressure teachers to focus instruction only on what is tested, which is often only basic skills in reading and sometimes mathematics.
  • Shared Attribution: This approach uses district-wide, school-wide or grade- or subject-level scores to assess teacher effectiveness. In other words, the individual growth rating for a kindergarten or first-grade teacher could be based on the school’s performance as a whole in reading and/or math, in the third through fifth grades. Some school districts in Florida are using this as a temporary measure until assessments have been identified for new subject areas and grade levels. While the shared attribution approach does utilize existing resources, it does not differentiate teachers in a meaningful way nor does it measure a teachers’ impact on her own students’ learning.

“An Ocean of Unknowns” makes three recommendations and puts forth nine challenges states and districts should address as they implement new evaluation systems that include measures of student achievement for early-grade teachers. Among the recommendations is to account for the specific attributes of PreK-3rd teachers; the report states that the PreK-3rd grades should not be lumped in with other untested grades and subjects, and that policymakers should not assume that what works for a seventh grade history teacher would work for a kindergarten teacher.

Regardless of the risks discussed in the report, overhauling teacher evaluation systems must continue. The old way of doing things did not work for policymakers, principals, teachers and, most importantly, students. All students—especially at-risk students—deserve a well-trained, effective teacher who can challenge them, instill a love of learning and help them develop the knowledge and skills they need for success in school and life. Getting this right is crucially important in the PreK-3rd grades, since research has confirmed, time and time again, how the quality of instruction and the quality of learning opportunities in children’s formative years sets the foundation for their academic and life success.

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