Study looks at teacher evaluations in untested’ early grades

So far 20 states and the District of Columbia have requirements that student learning play a role in the evaluation of teacher performance. Setting aside the many problems and uncertainties of the mandates, a new study out this month focuses attention on how an evaluation system can be applied to grades not included in statewide testing programs.

Researchers from the New America Foundation noted that most of the untested grades" are in the early years - from pre-kindergarten to the third grade. As a result, determining growth measures for the youngest students is not only one of the most controversial aspects of the new teacher evaluation requirements, but also extremely critical to students.

"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," wrote Laura Bornfreund, a senior policy analyst for New America's Early Education Initiative and author of the report.

"So measures of student learning should account for how young children actually learn and measure more than just reading and mathematics if we are to obtain an accurate picture of a teacher's impact on her young students' learning," she said.

Bornfreund followed activities in five states - Colorado, Delaware, Florida, Rhode Island, and Tennessee - as well as three school districts - Austin, Texas; Hillsborough County, Florida; and Washington, DC. Generally, she found most states are using one of three approaches or a combination: student learning objectives, shared assessments, and shared attribution.

She noted that each has drawbacks and strong points.

The first approach, student learning objectives, requires teachers in collaboration with administrators to create a measurable objective, identifies an assessment to measure that objective, and establishes a challenging but attainable target for students.

Bornfreund said this approach fosters a sense of shared priorities, supports a more well-rounded curriculum and can help improve instruction.

On the downside, however, she said developing the objectives properly is resource intensive and sometimes challenges the expertise available within a district. Because the system is unique to the student - this approach also comes with an inability to compare one teacher to another.

The second approach calls for creating or identifying shared assessments at the district or state level.

Under this scenario, comparisons across schools and districts are possible while also building skills transferable to the classroom. But this is also an approach that costs time and money to build and could lead to issues around test security or curriculum narrowing to improve student scores.

The third approach, called shared attribution, uses a school-wide, value-added score. In this system, results from evaluations based on standardized tests are used to determine the growth rating of the earlier grades.

While this system promotes accountability and use of existing resources, Bornfreund noted that it does not provide much individualized information to teachers and doesn't differentiate between teachers.

In considering the options, she points out a number of key issues that policy-makers should be aware of, including that assessments are not always designed to support other objectives and that because there's limited research on the question, states should proceed cautiously.

"Regardless of the challenges states face in overhauling teacher evaluation systems, getting it right is crucial in the PreK-3rd grades," Bornfreund said. "Research has confirmed, time and time again, that the quality of instruction and the quality of learning opportunities in children's formative years sets the foundation for their success as students, and, later, their success as adults."

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