After an extraordinary amount of public comment and some high-level meetings, the Christie administration has hedged on its plans to use test scores to evaluate teachers — but not by much.
State Education Commissioner Chris Cerf and his staff yesterday presented revisions to the new teacher evaluation code before the State Board of Education that would slightly lessen the weight that test scores would have in a teacher’s annual evaluation.
After first proposing that scores would amount to 35 percent of a performance evaluation for math and language arts teachers in grades 4-8, Cerf yesterday said that total would be trimmed to 30 percent for next year.
In addition, he said only the scores of students who had been enrolled with a given teacher 70 percent of the year would be applied to his or her rating. The previous level was 60 percent.
The board gave its preliminary approval to the revised proposal — known as Achieve NJ — moving it to the next stage in a lengthy regulatory process that still has a few months and more public comment to come. But the vote was a critical step in the process: Changes now are much more difficult to make.
“There was a feeling that 35 percent was too much, and reducing it by 5 percent made sense,” said Arcelio Aponte, the board president, after the meeting. “Based on the many discussions we had on this, I think 30 percent is a fair number.”
But even with the changes, there hardly seemed much satisfaction from those who have been critical of the state’s approach, nor much a sense that more compromise would come.
The state’s teachers unions have so far led the charge, with members of the New Jersey Education Association packing the public hearing in March and its top officers meeting with Cerf last week. They have been critical about the overall use of student test results, but especially with plans to use so-called student growth percentiles, which weigh student progress against that of comparable peers.
After watching the board’s vote yesterday, some of those officers said they didn’t feel they had made much headway, according to a spokesman.
“Not sure these changes really go far enough,” said Steve Wollmer, the NJEA’s communications director.
He said the 30 percent is not much better than 35 percent, indicating that both were arbitrary amounts with limited backing in research. And he said the commissioner still had the prerogative under the regulations to move them back up as high as 45 percent the second year and beyond.
“Board members got thousands of letters about this, and in the end, nothing much changed,” he said. “Twenty percent of our teachers are now going to be guinea pigs in this experiment, they really are.”
A key voice in the debate was also circumspect yesterday after the board’s action. State Sen. Teresa Ruiz (D-Essex) was the chief architect of the recent teacher tenure law that is the basis of the new regulations, and she had lobbied the administration to reduce the 35 percent as well, at least in the first year.
When asked if a reduction by 5 percent was enough, she didn’t say one way or the other. “It’s all about getting together and having a conversation about what’s responsible, and our conversation allowed for that,” Ruiz said.
The only dissent on the board came from Ronald Butcher, who ended up abstaining in the otherwise unanimous vote. He said afterward that the research backing the use of student test scores in general and “student growth percentiles” in particular was inconclusive.
Cerf and others on his staff have repeatedly pointed to a recently completed Measures of Effective Teaching (MET) Project that tracked more than 3,000 teachers and backed the use of test scores in measuring their practice, along with classroom observations and student surveys
But that project has its detractors as well, and Butcher after the meeting said he hopes there will be a further airing of the different points of view.
”This is not just about New Jersey, but in other states, too, where there are concerns,” he said. “If you look at the research, there are some issues with it. The MET study is just one study, and there is a lot of research calling it into question.”
Butcher stressed he wasn’t against the proposal overall, or the urgency to improve the teacher evaluation system. “I don’t want to halt the whole thing, I’m just raising some questions,” he said.
But the vote yesterday was a critical turning point in the process, with the proposal next being posted in the State Register and open for 60-day public comment before expected adoption in September.
Changes can still be made, but if significant, they would likely require the process to begin again. Aponte said that as president he could waive some of those steps, but added that rarely happens.
Wollmer wasn’t too hopeful about his side prevailing. “I don’t think anybody expects much change now,” he said.