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Editorial: Two wrongs won’t make rushed teacher evals right

“Fast-tracking a new system of teacher evaluations might only serve the purpose of fast-tracking a new system of teacher evaluations – not improving student proficiency or graduation rates, which is what education reform is geared toward.”

– Albuquerque Journal editorial, Dec. 10, 2012

Despite concerns from various superintendents and other early supporters of its plan to have student progress on standardized tests play a substantial role in teacher evaluations – including a “test year” to work out any bugs in the new system – the New Mexico Public Education Department implemented evaluations statewide. With predictable, error-ridden results. They are largely attributable to bad data from districts around the state, but it is the results that matter, not who was at fault.

A year later, PED would be well served to heed similar counsel and build in a test year as the entire public K-12 system converts to a more challenging standardized test.

Both reforms are important. Basing teacher evaluations on student progress is a cornerstone of the Obama administration’s schools policy and a linchpin in the state’s waiver from the No Child Left Behind Act. And the new Partnership for Assessment for Readiness for College and Careers test better aligns with the new national Common Core Curriculum, designed to ensure students have a solid base of knowledge at each grade level and are prepared for “college, career and life.”

But both reforms require complex changes and deserve to be implemented wisely – the goal should be unassailable results that encourage user buy-in, not flawed results that can be dismissed by opponents.

New Mexico’s new teacher evaluations started in 2012 as an opt-in pilot program involving just the classroom observation portion, then went live and statewide with additional factors including student test scores, feedback forms and teacher absences in the 2013-14 school year. The Journal had agreed with the proactive superintendents, principals and teachers across New Mexico who supported the new evaluations but recommended a test year.

Now another new school year has started, and PED is still sifting through the “wreck” predicted by Aztec Municipal Schools Superintendent Kirk Carpenter in 2012. His was among the handful of New Mexico schools in the pilot observation portion, and he cautioned that more training was essential to making the system work.

PED maintains problems with last school year’s evals are due to faulty data, and Education Secretary-designate Hanna Skandera says “the final responsibility doesn’t rest with PED but with the school districts.” Yes, Skandera has had to do a lot of heavy lifting on this reform alone, as the state Legislature repeatedly refused to get involved despite the desperate need to do so. But PED bears some responsibility for ensuring its districts are skilled up to administer the evals and tabulate the results.

Last school year, hundreds of evaluations required do-overs, and this year promises to be even more complex as the state switches from the paper-and-pencil Standards Based Assessment to the all-computer PARCC. PED has yet to explain how it will bridge that conversion, and its chief statistician just left the state.

The New Mexico School Superintendents’ Association, Santa Fe Public Schools Superintendent Joel Boyd and Rio Rancho Public Schools have asked the Public Education Department to suspend the use of test scores for one year. Boyd has been a leader in pushing for reform and supports use of test scores. But he correctly says it needs to be done right. A majority of Albuquerque Public Schools board members agree. And while a full suspension wouldn’t allow school districts and PED to spot and then address any problems and teachers to see what the ultimate evals will look like, it makes sense to set the test score portion apart, perhaps providing official 2014-15 evals without scores but including an addendum with “if test scores had been included,” or some such format.

U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan recently gave states like New Mexico with NCLB waivers more time to begin using test scores in their eval systems. Skandera says that option is for states that haven’t already started using test scores and she “will not hit pause for our kids.”

But how does proceeding with an error-plagued system in an even more complex arena help advance the reforms Skandera wants – and the state desperately needs?

This editorial first appeared in the Albuquerque Journal. It was written by members of the editorial board and is unsigned as it represents the opinion of the newspaper rather than the writers.

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