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Businesses push use of MCAS in teacher reviews

Move is opposed by union leaders

By James Vaznis
Globe Staff / March 18, 2011

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Business leaders, worried that Massachusetts is falling behind other states in boosting teacher quality, are pushing for teacher evaluations to be based at least 50 percent on their students’ MCAS scores and other student achievement data — a move strongly opposed by teacher unions.

Setting such a standard would put Massachusetts in line with states such as Colorado, Tennessee, and Louisiana that have passed legislation in the past year requiring evaluations based on the 50 percent benchmark.

Under current Massachusetts regulations, the state encourages school districts to consider student results on the Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System tests when grading teachers, but most schools ignore that data, according to state officials.

It is unclear whether business leaders will prevail. The proposal goes beyond the recommendations of a state task force overhauling the evaluation system that supports making test scores a “significant’’ factor in evaluating teachers and administrators but doesn’t set an actual percentage, according to a final report the task force will present to the state Board of Elementary and Secondary Education next week.

“There is no clear translation of what ‘significant factor’ means,’’ said Linda Noonan, a task force member who is executive director of the Massachusetts Business Alliance for Edu cation, a nonprofit that is pushing for the 50 percent benchmark. “Improving student performance is the most important factor in the evaluation of a teacher’s effectiveness. If a teacher does not improve student performance, we consider the teacher unsuccessful, even if the teacher has many other worthy qualities.’’

Having test scores account for at least 50 percent of an educator’s evaluation would bring public education into synch with many professions where results are often the overriding factor in an employee’s job review, Noonan said.

Massachusetts is seeking to overhaul its 16-year-old guidelines for evaluating the effectiveness of teachers and administrators as the Obama administration pushes states to link student test scores and other data to job reviews.

Many of the task force’s recommendations largely mirror a proposal pitched three months ago by the state’s largest teacher union organization, the Massachusetts Teachers Association, which supports using student testing data in teacher evaluations but opposes setting a specific percentage.

Even the Massachusetts Association of School Superintendents is hesitant about assigning a numeric value to student test scores in evaluations for teachers and principals. One sticking point is whether testing data should be based on just the year the teacher is being evaluated or on several years, said Thomas Scott, the association’s executive director and a task force member.

“In theory it sounds terrific,’’ Scott said. “In practice, it’s far more complicated.’’

Not all school leaders share that opinion. Boston school officials want the state to set a percentage. Boston is in the midst of negotiating a new teacher-evaluation system with its teachers union and has proposed basing a certain percentage of a teacher’s job review on student test scores.

“Now we have to interpret at the bargaining table the meaning of ‘significant factor,’ ’’ said Michael Goar, Boston’s deputy superintendent. “It will make it difficult for negotiations.’’

The American Federation of Teachers Massachusetts, which represents teachers in Boston and several other urban districts, opposes using student test scores in teacher evaluations.

“These tests measure student progress,’’ Richard Stutman, Boston Teachers Union president. “They are not designed to measure teacher progress.’’

The task force, established by the state education board, has more than 40 members and included teachers, union leaders, administrators, business representatives, academics, and education nonprofits. Nearly all members present at a meeting last week voted in favor of the final report.

On Tuesday, they will urge the state education board to scrap the current practice of rating teachers in one of two categories in favor of four — exemplary, proficient, needs improvement, and unsatisfactory. The group hopes the broader categories will help better identify outstanding teachers so that colleagues can learn best practices from them, while weeding out those who do not belong in the classroom.

The task force also will propose standards that would make it more difficult for new teachers to gain permanent status, requiring them to be proficient first in all areas of their evaluations.

Mitchell Chester, commissioner of elementary and secondary education, will then spend the next month determining which recommendations should move forward to a board vote.

In an interview, Chester said he is most concerned about having student test scores play a significant role in teacher evaluations, rather than setting a percentage.

But he emphasized that for the vast majority of teachers, evaluations should not be seen as a “punitive process.’’

“This is about providing them with high-quality feedback and a way to build on strengths and shore up weaknesses,’’ Chester said.

“We march students year after year through classrooms where instruction could be much stronger than it is now.’’

James Vaznis can be reached at jvaznis@globe.com.