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Delaware lawmakers, unions want delay on tying new test to teacher evaluation

(NewsWorks/FILE)

(NewsWorks/FILE)

A broad coalition of state lawmakers and interest groups don’t want Delaware teachers to be judged by student scores on a new test.

At least not yet.

In a letter sent Friday to Governor Jack Markell and obtained by Newsworks/WHYY, signatories asked the state to wait at least one more year before tying results of the new Smarter Balanced test to “decisions … made regarding teachers’ employment.”

Delaware has already received a one-year grace period from the federal government that will apply to this year’s batch of tests. The letter asked Gov. Markell to demand an additional year, meaning Smarter Balanced test scores would not be used to reward or punish teachers until 2017 at the earliest.

Legislators unite

The letter’s endorsers include the Delaware State Education Association, the Delaware Association of School Administrators and the state PTA. It was signed by 24 legislators, including every member of the House education committee and every member of the Senate education committee save one. The lone exception was Robert Marshall, D-Wilmington.

“There are several of us who are concerned that we don’t have enough data from Smarter Balanced to even begin thinking about using it for binding teacher evaluation,” said state Sen. Bryan Townsend, D-Newark.

The group said it initially tried to sell the Delaware Dept. of Education on the idea, but was rebuffed. They are now asking the governor to intervene.

Their action revives long-simmering tensions between the state and some of its most influential constituents over how best to evaluate teachers. The DOE has long endorsed the idea that test scores should factor into teacher evaluation, and even lead to dismissal for those who consistently perform poorly. Teachers unions and others worry that such a system would overemphasize testing and distort classroom instruction.

Markell responded to the letter Wednesday with a letter of his own. In it, the Governor said his administration takes the legislators’ concerns “very seriously,” but deferred judgment until the group has a scheduled meeting with the U.S. Department of Education.

Donna Johnson, executive director of the state board of education, said her body opposed seeking a second delay. Johnson believes two years of data is sufficient. “We do not feel there is a need to ask for an additional year,” she said.

Smarter Balanced will be administered in Delaware for the first time this spring. It is aligned with Common Core State Standards and is expected to be more difficult than the prior assessment. It will test students in grades 3-8 and grade 11 on their mastery of math and English language arts. Sixteen other states will use the Smarter Balanced test this year, according to the most recent count by Education Week.

“Two years is adequate”

“There are a lot of reasons why the test should be given, but the results should not be used for employee decision-making until enough time has been given over to transition,” said Frederika Jenner, president of the DSEA.

Jenner said she’d support tying test scores to teacher evaluations beginning in the 2016-17 school year, although she does not support the broader concept of using tests to measure teachers. “We think that two years is adequate. We’re not going to keep doing this. I don’t want you to think we’re going to keep saying, ‘Another year, another year.'”

Jenner believes teachers haven’t had the time needed to properly prepare students for the new test, and that data gleaned from it would not be reliable.

To earn a second reprieve, the DOE will have to request one from the U.S. Department of Education on its Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) flexibility waiver. The ESEA, more commonly known as No Child Left Behind, established benchmarks that states must meet in order to receive flexible federal funding.

Since no state has met those benchmarks, and because the U.S. Congress has yet to revise the law, Delaware and others must submit waivers that promise certain reforms in exchange for fiscal flexibility.

As part of its last flexibility waiver, Delaware asked for, and was granted, a one-year window to implement Smarter Balanced before integrating results into teacher evaluations. Asking for a second reprieve would likely miff federal overseers.

Component V

At present, teacher evaluations are split into five components. Only the fifth, known as Component V, takes student test scores into account, and just half of that fifth component corresponds to student performance on the state assessments in math and English language arts. In 2014-15, evaluations will not include this portion of Component V.

The state’s teacher evaluation system has been dinged in past years for being too lenient, even as it incorporates test scores. In 2013 and 2014, nearly all teachers were deemed effective or highly effective despite the inclusion of scores on state assessments.

Delaware’s waiver is due on March 31. The current version does not request another Smarter Balanced delay. A public comment period on the waiver opened this week and will end March 17. The state board of education is expected to vote on the waiver on March 19.

Correction: An earlier version of this article misstated Donna Johnson’s title. It is executive director, not president.

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