School districts continue to make high-stakes decisions about teacher performance based on how well students perform on state mandated tests, despite mounting opposition across the nation. Yet no state has tied renewal of teaching licenses to test scores – but Tennessee recently came close.
Last year, Tennessee Education Commissioner Kevin Huffman began pushing this highly controversial proposal, only to be with met with steadfast opposition from the state’s educators. This career-ending policy would have been similar to telling a student who fails a course that she is academically finished.
But the Tennessee Education Association (TEA) successfully lobbied against the policy. In June, the General Assembly passed legislation prohibiting student test scores based on the Tennessee Value-Added Assessment (TVAAS) to be a determining factor in teachers’ licenses.
TVAAS, a statistical estimate that can measure student test scores in reading and language arts, math, science and social studies, gives teachers a score of 1-5. Educators would have needed a TVAAS score of at least 2 for up to two or three years to renew their licenses. Teachers who do not receive TVAAS estimates would have needed an overall evaluation score of at least 2 over the same time period. The overall evaluation score also takes TVAAS scores into account: 25 percent of those teachers’ overall evaluation is based on TVAAS scores at the school-wide, statewide, or district-wide level.
“The idea that a teacher could lose their license based on low test scores is an assault on the teaching profession,” said Jim Wrye, TEA assistant executive director of government relations and communications. “It makes no sense at all. Would you pull the license of a lawyer who loses in court? There are often things that are outside the professional’s control.”
TEA spread awareness about the dangers of this policy through presentations in several cities and before the House Education Committee and the State Board of Education. TEA General Counsel Rick Colbert produced videos, posted on YouTube, that demonstrated the assessment’s inaccuracies.
“Even though this is something the governor and education commissioner wanted deeply, the power of teachers got it overturned,” said Bryan Massengale, a middle school band director. “TEA did their homework. It was a great campaign to help teachers push it through the Legislature.”
Members of the TEA used personal stories in their presentations. In a video shown to those at the presentation, Dresden Middle School teacher Cynthia Watson pointed out the inaccuracies of using TVAAS in evaluations. From 2008 to 2012, her score fluctuated every year: she scored a 5 in 2008, a 1 in 2009, a 4 in 2010, a 5 in 2011, and 1 in 2012.
Certainly, making licensure decisions with an unreliable system is unacceptable. Yet, should TVAAS scores even be considered for one-third of an educator’s evaluation?
Evaluations in Tennessee underwent vast changes in 2010, when the state passed the First to the Top Act. Beginning in the 2011-12 school year, it allowed value-added data to be used for high-stakes decisions, including tenure, compensation decisions, retention and promotion.
Currently, 50 percent of teacher evaluations in the state are based on so-called “student achievement data” – 35 percent from student growth from TVAAS scores and 15 percent is tied to other forms of student achievement. The other half of teacher evaluations is composed of teacher observations and other measures. The number of in-class observations, both announced and unannounced, depends on how well a teacher has performed on previous evaluations.
For teachers who do not have TVAAS scores, such as foreign language and music educators, 25 percent of their evaluations may be based on school-wide, statewide, or district-wide student test scores. This means that 25 percent of their evaluations are effectively out of their control.
Two lawsuits have been filed by educators over the use of TVAAS estimates in high-stakes salary decisions, and TEA reports that more may be on the way, “so long as the state continues to tie more and more high-stakes decisions to TVAAS estimates.”
Educators in Tennessee, regardless of experience, have left the profession due to the pressures of teaching under the new evaluation system, said Beth Brown, newly elected vice president of TEA.
“Students take test after test after test to practice for the test; valuable teaching and learning time is lost to administering multiple assessments throughout the year,” Brown explained. “… Moreover, evaluation scores should never be based on a ‘secret’ formula that is so unstable that it creates a standard of error almost as wide as the scoring bracket.”
“For years, TVAAS was used for teachers to gain knowledge about students,” said middle school educator Ashley Evett, who also serves on the TEA Board of Directors. “Now, it’s used maliciously against teachers. It shouldn’t be used for anything except gaining data.”
Attempting to end the testing culture in Tennessee, TEA launched the “Teach the Students, Not the Tests” campaign, explaining how over-testing damages schools. The campaign has initiated important discussions among educators, parents, policy makers and other stakeholders, Brown said.
“The campaign underscores the vital realization that students are not standardized, so their tests shouldn’t be either,” she added.