When Miami-Dade’s 2012 elementary science teacher of the year finally got her annual evaluation last May, she was confused.
Despite the top honor from her peers for her work with Howard Drive Elementary fifth graders, the official record ranked Julie Rich as barely effective due to her students’ poor test results — in reading.
“It makes no sense,” said Rich. “I’m just trying to get a fair evaluation. I felt really offended by this because I’m not even being judged by the subject I teach.”
Nor are thousands of other Florida teachers.
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As the Department of Education prepares to release another batch of evaluation results Monday under the state’s new job review process, local school boards and state officials are still struggling to improve a system that judges as many as two-thirds of the state’s teachers on the test scores of students they’ve never met or on subjects they don’t teach.
A solution to the problem lies in the development of hundreds of new exams, which state officials say should be ready by next school year. But skeptics say creating and issuing the assessments could cost billions. And doubts remain about whether Florida’s 67 school districts have the time or money to make the system work by 2014, when pay and job security are tied to evaluations.
“I’m not confident we can do it at all,” said Wayne Blanton, president of the Florida School Boards Association. The state’s teacher evaluations changed in the 2011-12 school year after lawmakers passed the controversial Student Success Act. The law established a new merit pay system that will pay and penalize teachers based off of the combined results of classroom observations and student achievement.
To gauge student progress and teacher effectiveness, education officials developed a complicated “value-added’’ formula that uses the results of standardized tests to determine how a student should perform.
If students score better than projected, teachers get a positive score. If students perform worse, teachers get a negative score. The results can be the difference between a big raise and losing a job.
But problems with the equity of the system have drawn plenty of attention considering the state’s teacher union believes more than 100,000 educators teach courses that aren’t tied to a state test.
That has led teachers to file lawsuits challenging their evaluations, which have been based off of schools’ test score averages, or in some cases results from students in other schools. Last year, legislators changed the law to require that teacher evaluations be based off the performance of their own students.
“We’re making progress,” said Sen. Anitere Flores, a Miami Republican who proposed the change. “By the end of the day we’re hoping the teacher compensation system is something that’s fair.”
Flores said she declined to direct districts how to go about following the change in law in order to give them flexibility, and also because the Student Success Act already mandates that every public school course have an end-of-course assessment by next school year.
Districts, however, say assigning teachers value-added scores based off their own students’ test results isn’t as simple as “flipping a switch.”
Even as districts combine resources, use millions in federal grants to create new tests and plan to incorporate results from existing national tests like Advanced Placement, officials say they need more time. Both the Florida Association of District School Superintendents and Florida School Boards Association have asked the state to delay its testing and evaluation deadlines.
In a letter to the state this month, the superintendents association said districts are still trying to come up with tests for as many as 900 courses. Meanwhile, the school boards association says the state’s testing requirements could cost up to $2 billion statewide.
“The cost of designing, implementing and carrying out the tests on a yearly basis is going to be phenomenal, hundreds of millions of dollars every year,” said Blanton, the school boards association executive director. “Do the math. You’ve got 2.7 million students and tests that have to be designed and then upgraded every year.”
In Miami-Dade, officials said this month that they’re still trying to create exams for more than 1,000 courses, and expect the cost to be in the ballpark of $3 million. In a letter to the commissioner of education this summer, Miami-Dade Superintendent Alberto Carvalho said two-thirds of the school system’s courses lacked existing exams and only 4 percent were linked to standardized tests on basic subjects like math and reading. Last year, only about 8,200 teachers taught subjects that could be factored directly into value-added scores, he said.
The district plans to use a variety of new test scores in evaluations this year, but even then only 17,600 teachers would receive direct evaluations results, leaving thousands of others still in the lurch. For those teachers, the district has previously assigned school-wide averages, which likely won’t be possible after legislators voted up Flores’ proposal.
“We’re a little in the dark as to what the state will do. We’ll be in trouble if we have to produce tests for all these non-core content areas by [the] 14-15” school year, said Gisela Feild, Dade’s administrative director of assessment, research and data analysis.
“You’re still talking 1,000 courses. So we’re talking millions of dollars to develop these tests out-of-pocket for our district.”
Broward officials said they haven’t yet come up with the number of courses for which they need to develop tests, or a cost, but are asking for more time.
“This can’t be a flipping of the switch, but something that needs to be done in a very deliberate manner,” said Nathan Balasubramanian, Broward’s executive director of strategy and continuous improvement.
The Department of Education is expected to release an updated statewide plan soon for handling teacher evaluations, including where to set what are now locally-negotiated cut scores that delineate between teachers who are “highly effective,” “effective,” “need improvement” or “unsatisfactory.” Department officials also say they’re working to help districts come up with new tests under the expectation that next year’s deadlines will hold.
“We do feel like we’re on track,” said department spokeswoman Tiffany Cowie.
It’s unclear for now if legislators will change anything during the upcoming session Lawmakers have so far given little indication that they’re willing to delay the testing and evaluation deadlines under the Student Success Act. Last year, they only tweaked the system despite the same discussions about slowing the process and arguments from teachers unions that creating more exams will only further an overdependence on testing.
“We’re wasting a lot of time and resources to evaluate teachers based on a test. We need to move away from that mentality,” said Andy Ford, president of the Florida Education Association.
For now, districts and unions will continue issuing and negotiating evaluations under the guidance of the state. And teachers like Rich may or may not get another year’s evaluation based off someone else’s job performance.
“Imagine if I gave your child an arbitrary grade based on a subject he doesn’t take with me,” said Rich. “It’s the principle of it.”