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Cerf Goes Public About Student Test Scores and Teacher Evaluations

At standing-room-only meeting of the state BOE, administration puts rough percentages to components of teacher ratings.

The Christie administration yesterday continued to fill in the details of next year's new teacher evaluation system, including how -- and how much -- test scores will be used to determine final ratings.

Plenty of questions remain. But by presenting their proposed regulations for the new system to the BOE, state Education Commissioner Chris Cerf and his top staff took an important first step, putting specific percentages to how much state test scores and other factors would count toward teacher ratings.

For teachers in grades and subjects that are evaluated by state tests, such as elementary school language arts and math, student progress on those exams would count for 35 percent of an educator's rating in the first year, officials said. The balance of the rating would come from supervisors’ evaluations of teacher practice (50 percent) and other undefined achievement measures (15 percent).

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Officials stressed that state test scores -- by far the most controversial piece component -- would apply to only about one-fifth of all teachers, and there would be a variety of other measures, often depending on grade and subjects.

Teachers in nontested grades or subjects -- from the earliest grades that don’t have state tests to high school classes like art and history -- would be judged on individually determined “student growth objectives.”

Definitions of those objectives were left fairly open-ended and to be set by teachers and their supervisors, but in the first year, they will count for just 15 percent. The rest of the rating would be based on teacher practice.

In an effort to deliver a high-level view of their plans, the administration boiled down 104 pages of proposed code to 35 PowerPoint slides. But a host of questions are sure to come, as the state Board of Education begins its deliberations and districts start to digest the details.

Typically, the board doesn’t make huge changes in administration proposals, but it will have its say over the next several months. Six public presentations have been scheduled across the state, starting next week in Toms River.

The code is mandated by the new teacher tenure law adopted last summer, the Teacher Effectiveness and Accountability for the Children of New Jersey (TEACHNJ) Act. The lengthy -- and at times acrimonious -- debate over the law covered much of the same ground.

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The presentation at yesterday's board meeting also proved provocative, and pulled in a good turnout.

At least some part of that standing-room-only audience was there to offer testimony on the controversial new special education code later in the day. But at least two rows of seats were filled by members of the New Jersey Education Association, the state’s largest teachers union.

One prevailing question both during and after the meeting had to do with how the process would work, especially the tests scores and a complex formula called “student growth percentiles” (SGP) that will measures students’ progress against that of comparable peers.

The state is expected to release its first SGP scores for overall school performance this month, based on 2011-2012 tests, but has only started to share them for individual teachers.

In one of the few lines of questioning from the board, member Edithe Fulton, a former president of the NJEA, asked Cerf’s staff about when the scores would be ready for evaluating teachers each year, since the tests they are based on are given in late spring and scores don’t return until fall.

Assistant education commissioner Peter Shulman said scores for the state’s current assessments may not be back until well into the next school year, and he acknowledged that the stakes for those evaluations -- including improvement plans or even tenure decisions -- could be delayed.

“There will obviously not be any drastic action without all the data in,” Shulman said.

Cerf said several times that the effort remains a “continuously evolving process,” but also noted that the department has taken pains to work with stakeholder groups and educators.

“We have gone about this process in a more measured, slow, and humble way than have other states,” he said. “But we are very committed to the view that what we are doing now in terms of evaluation is really inadequate, and our goal is a collective process that does better.”

After the meeting, a spokesman for the NJEA leadership was less combative than he was the day before after first reviewing the regulations -- but not by much.

“They are just moving really fast with the SGP, when there are real questions as to how it will work,” said Steve Wollmer, the NJEA’s communications director. “None of it has been tested, we don’t know it will work, or what it will measure.”

“Why don’t we slow this down and test the SGP?” he said.

Other advocates and a sampling of superintendents were holding back their comments until they could read the regulations themselves, including one who chaired a statewide task force in 2011 that made some of the first recommendations for an evaluation system.

“We’ve been holding our breath to take a look at these regulations, but I wouldn’t want to comment until I have a chance to review them,” said Brian Zychowski, superintendent of North Brunswick schools.

But privately a few were raising similar questions about the pace of the effort, especially the use of student achievement data. Reflecting some of the concerns that have been voiced over the past several months, one superintendent took to his own local superintendent’s blog yesterday to air his worries.

“I remain uneasy at the pace of these changes and at the unanswered questions about how student achievement data will impact upon our teachers,” said Charles Sampson, superintendent of Freehold Regional High School District on his district blog.

“We are driving at an unnatural speed to meet all requirements,” he wrote, “and we are doing so with less information than would prove ideal.”

The full list of public presentations on the proposed regulations:

  • March 13, 3:30 p.m. - 5:30 p.m, Toms River High School North

  • March 15, 1:00 p.m. - 4 p.m. Morris County Fire Fighters & Police Academy (Parsippany)

  • March 19, 9:00 a.m. - 3:00 p.m. Rutgers Camden (Rutgers–Camden Campus Center)

  • March 21 (2 sessions), 1:00 p.m. - 3:00 p.m. and 4:00 p.m. - 6:00 p.m. New Jersey Supervisors and Principals Association (Monroe)

  • April 10, 9:00 a.m. - 11:30 am Ocean City High School

  • April 11 (2 sessions), 1:00 p.m. - 3:00 p.m. and 4:00 p.m.- 6:00 p.m. Teaneck High School

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