NASHVILLE — When Tennessee was competing for a half-billion dollars in federal education money, teachers agreed to allow the state to ramp up its use of student test scores for evaluating educators.
But since winning the $500 million Race to the Top competition in 2010, teachers say the state has gone too far in using student test scores to assess their performance.
Teachers say that isn’t what they signed up for when the state was competing for the prestigious and lucrative Race to the Top grant. They are now calling for legislation to place a moratorium on the use of so-called TVAAS scores until a special committee can review them. Teachers also want legislation that prohibits the scores from being tied to teacher licensing.
The Tennessee Value-Added Assessment System, or TVAAS, was adopted by state lawmakers in 1992. It wasn’t intended to grade teachers but to help school directors gauge student progress, according to Jim Wrye, chief lobbyist for the Tennessee Education Association, the state’s largest teachers’ union.
State education officials decided to use the TVAAS data when entering the grant competition, and teachers signed on — with the understanding that it would be part of “multiple measures and not the focus,” Wrye said.
Teachers agreed to allow TVAAS to represent at least 35 percent of a teacher’s evaluation. But the state has since ramped up its use of TVAAS, pushing administrators to have classroom observation scores line up with standardized test scores, and most recently tried to link teacher licensure to TVAAS as well.
Wrye said value-added data is a statistical estimate based on standardized test scores that do not measure all that is valued in education. For that reason, he said it shouldn’t be relied upon because it could result in a tenured teacher receiving a bad evaluation, which could lead to termination.
“It’s really ... become the driver of everything in evaluation, and that’s where the problem lies,” he said.
Twenty-six states have teacher evaluation processes that use some type of student progress as a measurement, according to the National Education Association. Of that number, 19 states give a certain percentage to student test scores. Sixteen of the 19 — including Tennessee — use 35 percent or higher.
Most teachers say they welcome an evaluation process, as long as it is fair.
“Teachers invented tests,” said Andrea Giunta, senior policy analyst in teacher quality for the Washington-based National Education Association. “We’re always looking for feedback because that helps our students learn. But it should be fair and based on sound educational practice.”
The teacher licensure proposal spurred a petition protest signed by more than 50 Tennessee school superintendents. The Tennessee Board of Education voted in August to support the new policy but changed its stance last month.
In Florida, the education association there is also pushing a couple of measures to delay the use of value-added scores in evaluations.
“We’re working to get a delay in this until teachers have full confidence in this ... system,” said Mark Pudlow, spokesman for the Florida Education Association.
Despite the criticism, however, national and state education officials say the education reforms — particularly involving teacher evaluations — are paying off.
In November, U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan attributed the reforms in large part to the National Assessment of Educational Progress, or NAEP, showing Tennessee students leading the nation in academic improvement. President Barack Obama lauded the state’s reforms during his State of the Union address, and a couple of days later during a speech at a high school in Nashville, Tenn.
Tennessee Education Commissioner Kevin Huffman says he doesn’t believe too much weight is being given to student test data.
“I feel like the weight that’s being given to test scores is in line with what we would want to see right now on an evaluation,” he said. “Our goal is to advance student learning.”
Teachers say that is their goal, too.
Ana Kittell teaches at Trousdale County High School in Hartsville, Tenn. She said she’s actually benefited from changes to the teacher evaluation system, such as more constructive feedback because of the increased number of observations.
However, the 28-year-old physical science teacher said student test data should be considered in evaluating teachers, but its use should have limits — since teachers are to some extent at the mercy of the students.
“They’re not robots,” Kittell said. “They can have a bad day.”