World and Nation

Secretary allows reprieve on test-based teacher ratings

Education Secretary Arne Duncan announced Thursday that states could delay the use of test results in teacher-performance ratings by another year, an acknowledgment, in effect, of the enormous pressures mounting on the nation’s teachers because of new academic standards and more rigorous standardized testing.

Using language that evoked some of his fiercest critics, Duncan wrote in a blog post, “I believe testing issues are sucking the oxygen out of the room in a lot of schools,” and added that teachers needed time to adapt to new standards and tests that emphasize more than simply filling in bubbled answers to multiple-choice questions.

Over the past four years, close to 40 states have adopted laws that tie teacher evaluations in part to the performance of their students on standardized tests. Many districts have said they will use these performance reviews to decide how teachers are granted tenure, promoted or fired. These laws were adopted in response to conditions set by the Education Department in the waivers it granted from the No Child Left Behind law that governs what states must do to receive federal education dollars. The test-based teacher evaluations were also included as conditions of Race to the Top grants that have been given by the Obama administration.

Many teachers and parents say these laws force educators to narrow their curriculums and spend too much time on test preparation. At the same time, schools have been scrambling to change their curriculums to match the Common Core, the new academic guidelines for what children should learn in math and reading from kindergarten through high school graduation. These standards were adopted by more than 40 states but have been the subject of increasing controversy.

Critics of Duncan welcomed his shift in tone Thursday, but they also called on him to go further than a simple one-year delay.

“They should stop requiring the use of test scores in teacher evaluation altogether,” said Anthony Cody, a former teacher and a founder of the Network for Public Education, a political action group. He added that the federal government should have less say in how teachers and schools operate. “Local school districts should have autonomy to figure out how best to evaluate their schools, their school districts and their teachers,” he said.

Objections to test-based teacher evaluations have been building. In 2012, Chicago teachers went on strike in part to protest the inclusion of standardized test scores in their performance ratings. Even those who originally pushed for the adoption of teacher ratings based on test scores have advocated slower implementation. In June, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, one of the country’s largest donors to education causes, called for a two-year moratorium on states or districts making any personnel decisions based on tests aligned to the Common Core.