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Testing teachers
Standardized evaluations will consider student performance as criteria

ATLANTA — Georgia is moving forward with a plan to standardize annual evaluations for teachers and principals based, in part, on student performance.
    A pilot program launched a few years ago with federal funds will serve as a roadmap for districts after the General Assembly in recent weeks passed legislation approving the statewide plan. Gov. Nathan Deal is expected to sign the bill into law, and state education officials are working with local districts to prepare for the new system, to be implemented in every district by the 2014-15 school year.
    "A big piece of this is professional learning," said Avis King, deputy superintendent with the Georgia Department of Education. "What tools do these teachers and principals need to become better? And how can we support and provide that for them?"
    Georgia is the latest state to move toward a standardized evaluation system, as advocates around the country have pushed for the change. In addition, funding to help develop the systems has been provided by the Obama administration under programs such as Race to the Top that are designed to encourage and reward states for implementing certain reforms.
    In Georgia, evaluations will be divided 50 percent on student growth and achievement and 50 percent on other factors, including classroom observations and student surveys.
    "Now we have a growth model that really honors the impact that teachers have on student performance," said Robin Gay, director of teacher and leader effectiveness with the Department of Education. "Yes, we want all of our students to perform and be at mastery level. It may come over time."
    State education leaders say the system is needed to ensure teachers receive consistent feedback and direction. Critics of the current system say the varying standards typically resulted in satisfactory ratings with no emphasis on improvement. An initial review of a portion of the new system has shown a similar trend — nearly 94 percent of teachers in the first year of the pilot program received a rating of proficient or exemplary, with about 6 percent rated ineffective or developing/needs improvement.
    State officials say the large percentage of positive scores indicates a need for further training and monitoring by the Department of Education. Other states have reported similar results with their new systems. Supporters say the change represents a major shift and it will take time for evaluators to adjust.
    In Georgia, education officials say the system will allow for better recognition of the most effective teachers and school leaders because there will be shared data to analyze. The legislation does not mandate merit pay, but the evaluations will be a factor in decisions on retention, promotion, compensation and dismissals.
    Tim Callahan, a spokesman for the Professional Association of Georgia Educators, said that it's too early to say whether the new system is an improvement and that he hopes lawmakers keep an eye on how the program is implemented.
    "They need to hold school system leaders accountable for how well and how comprehensively they implement the legislation," Callahan said in an email. "If evaluations across the state are done haphazardly or inconsistently, it could result in enormous legal problems for educators and school systems."
    For those teachers who instruct courses that are part of standardized tests, student performance on the exams will comprise the achievement portion of the evaluations. Officials say that represents roughly 30 percent of the state's teachers.
    Those who teach non-tested courses such as physical education, music or art will be evaluated under a system designed to measure student growth with targets set by districts and approved by the state. For instance, a second-grade teacher may have a goal of improving how many words a child can read correctly, perhaps looking to move from 51 words to 94 from fall to spring.
    The current cheating scandal in the Atlanta Public Schools system has prompted discussion about the emphasis of standardized tests, but state education officials say any concerns the evaluations rely too much on student performance are unfounded. Prosecutors say allege the former superintendent and nearly three dozen educators were involved in a conspiracy to cheat and receive bonuses for improved student performance.
    Melissa Fincher, associate superintendent for assessment and accountability with the Georgia Department of Education, said the evaluation is designed to measure individual student growth and not provide an arbitrary benchmark of performance on a standardized test. Using a complex statistical analysis, a student's growth will be measured relative to other students who scored similarly on prior tests. This will generate a measurement called a "student growth percentile," and teachers will be measured against the median of that measurement for their class.
    "For those teachers who have struggling students, they don't have to be proficient but they have to demonstrate student growth," Fincher said. "It doesn't mean they haven't made progress. This measure will give teachers credit for the growth the students have made."
    State Rep. Randy Nix, R-LaGrange, sponsored the teacher evaluation bill. He said student learning and progress should be the focus for teachers, and he doesn't think that simply evaluating someone's performance would lead to unethical behavior.
    "Our teachers need to be people of the greatest honesty and integrity under all situations, or they need to be replaced immediately," Nix said in an email. "Most of our teachers are great individuals and excellent teachers. They deserve a professional evaluation system which can weed out those who are not."

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