Local school officials expect little to change this fall after the Tennessee General Assembly passed legislation related to teacher licensure, but some are expecting teachers may experience less stress.
On April 22, Gov. Bill Haslam signed the into law a bill that prevents the Tennessee Department of Education from using student test scores to decide whether or not a teacher’s license is renewed.
Originally introduced as companions House Bill 1375 and Senate Bill 2240, the new law “prohibits the department of education from revoking or non-renewing an individual's license based solely on student growth data as represented by the Tennessee value-added assessment system (TVAAS), or some other comparable measure of student growth, if no such TVAAS data is available.”
The teacher licensure process has taken TVAAS data into account since the 2011-12 school year, after the state enacted the First to the Top Act. Part of the assessment for teachers include data on students’ growth and achievement that come from TVAAS.
TVAAS “measures the impact schools and teachers have on their students’ academic progress,” according to the Tennessee Department of Education’s website. It is said that the system “only measures what a school can control ... such as their students’ academic progress during the school year.”
The system measures student performance in the subjects of math, reading and language arts, science and social studies, resulting in a score between 1 and 5, with 5 being the best.
“Under Tennessee’s teacher evaluation legislation, value-added scores count for a portion of teachers’ overall evaluation scores,” the department’s explanation reads. “For teachers who receive an individual growth score ... value-added scores count for 35 percent of the final evaluation score.”
The other 65 percent has been comprised of “other student achievement data” that can include things like graduation rates and peer reviewing.
Teachers are not the only ones assigned scores; entire schools and school systems also receive them.
While the Cleveland and Bradley County school systems as a whole both saw overall scores of 5 on the most recent state report card, tying TVAAS to teacher licensure had remained a concern.
“That was an important issue to Bradley County,” Bradley County Schools Director Johnny McDaniel said.
Back in October, the Bradley County Board of Education passed a resolution that expressed its displeasure over using student test scores as a determining factor for teacher licensure. It addressed various concerns, including that “baseline tests in primary grades are formatted differently, lack time requirements and are overly dependent on student test-taking skills.”
Bradley County school board members took their resolution to a meeting of the Tennessee School Boards Association, and Beaty said that led to the state association “adopting” it as well.
While the local board is in favor of measuring student achievement and growth, its members did take issue with how TVAAS data was used to evaluate teachers.
“The board felt strongly that it should not be tied to the licensure piece,” Board Chair Vicki Beaty said. “We are very pleased with the results.”
Dr. Kim Fisher, principal of Black Fox Elementary School, lobbied for the change on behalf of local teachers and principals, inviting state legislators to her school to speak with local educators about their concerns.
Last fall, she sent emails to several state legislators to share her concerns, and she was “really thankful” to receive such visits from a few of them, including state Reps. Joe Pitts and Eric Watson, as well as Sen. Todd Gardenhire.
Fisher said the Legislature listened to local educators’ concerns after realizing the “injustice” of using student test scores as a measure for teacher licensure. While she stressed that she was not against measuring students’ progress, whether or not a teacher’s license is renewed should not be solely affected by test scores.
Agreeing with the decision, Cleveland City Schools Director Martin Ringstaff said, “What they did was supportive to teachers.”
Though the department of education included “students’ academic progress during the school year” as one of the items that schools can control, some pointed out that testing was the main measure of academic progress.
McDaniel said it was telling that the House bill was sponsored by Rep. John Forgety, R-Athens, because of his county of origin and its nearness to Bradley County. McDaniel called introducing the legislation “a pretty bold step” that was “significant” to area educators.
Area educators gave various reasons for wanting the law to change.
Ringstaff compared the old concept as being analogous to a lawyer losing his or her license just because he or she lost a case. It did not take into account that a student might just be having a bad day while taking a test. Teacher licensure is too important a matter to attach it to something as unpredictable as a test score, he said.
“There’s more to the puzzle of educating students than how they do on a test,” Ringstaff said. “You can’t tie it to one single item.”
He also pointed out that TVAAS data could not be an equal measure of quality for all teachers.
“Some of our teachers don’t even have TVAAS scores,” Ringstaff said.
Though TVAAS takes into account scores on math, reading and language arts, science and social studies, there are no scores given to teachers who instruct students on subjects like Spanish or the career and technical studies of things like business and culinary arts.
For teachers who fall outside the realm of “non-tested grades and subjects,” it was the school’s overall score that applied to teacher evaluations, according to the state department of education. The records of those subjects’ teachers also gave less weight to the TVAAS data. It only accounted for 25 percent of teachers’ “final evaluation scores” instead of the 35 percent that was taken into account for teachers of “tested subjects.”
In addition to the tests themselves not being satisfactory, the Bradley County school board’s laundry list of concerns also included that “Tennessee has changed its curriculum standards multiple times in a short period of time,” “the predicting of student growth is more difficult to benchmark when standards are changed so often” and “a teacher with a high TVAAS score can also have low proficiency ratings.”
Fisher said test scores should never be the sole determining factor over whether or not a teacher can still teach.
As someone who has been an educator for years, Fisher said the way Tennessee had been using TVAAS data did not represent good research principles.
For example, after she had just started there as a second-grade teacher in 1996, she assisted in making a school plan with other teachers and administrators at Black Fox.
One factor they were evaluating at the time was how student reading scores had changed since the school had introduced the Accelerated Reader program in 1994. They had to decide whether or not to continue with it.
The reading scores themselves offered quantitative data that showed the program had made a positive impact, but qualitative data came when parents told teachers about how their students had come to enjoy reading more. Both sources of data offered different sides of the same story.
“Never do you ever make a decision based on one data source,” Fisher said.
She said the same should apply to teacher licensure. How a teacher teaches is not the only thing that determines how a student does on a test. For example, a child going through a rough time in his or her life could keep them from focusing on school.
While she did not go into detail, Fisher recalled a time in her childhood when she found herself “crying every day.” Fisher said her being distracted from her studies was not an accurate reflection of her teachers’ ability to teach.
She said she is still in favor of using TVAAS to measure progress, but the student test scores that make up the TVAAS data should not have been given the weight they had.
“I believe in using that,” Fisher said. “I do not want to defend an ineffective teacher.”
McDaniel pointed out that some state’s teacher licensures don’t include student scores at all, and it is not a piece that was vital to what Tennessee had been doing.
In 2013, the Tennessee Board of Education made the decision to tie TVAAS to teacher licensure. McDaniel described the recent legislation as the state making a law to see that does not happen again and, in so doing, returning things back to the way they were before the state school board’s decision.
“It’s maintaining the policy that had been in place before,” McDaniel said.
Both local school systems will continue to use the TVAAS measures to keep track of student growth, per state requirements. The difference is that it will not play a part in determining teacher licensure.
Ringstaff said he doesn’t think it will change how teachers teach because he believes they want to do well. However, it may lessen some of the stress.
To ensure teacher quality, it is up to schools and school systems to make sure there are opportunities for professional development as new standards are introduced, he said. Ringstaff said tying TVAAS data to teacher licensure was not the best way to ensure they do well.
One way to ensure students do well on tests is to make sure teachers are receiving the training they need to keep up with changing academic standards like Common Core.
“We have to make sure professional development opportunities are there for teachers to get better,” Ringstaff said.
Beaty said she also believes the change in state legislation could lead to less stress among teachers at school.
“I think the change will be seen in the classroom,” Beaty said. “I think that will relieve classroom teachers; I believe it will make a more comfortable learning environment.”
That in turn is something she expects will in turn be “better for the students.” Beaty said less stress could lead to better teaching.
She pointed out that teachers were being evaluated on students’ test scores at a time when lots of changes were being made to how many some subjects are taught. Common Core state standards have been gradually implemented since the 2011-12 school year. However, Beaty pointed out that the board is still concerned that academic standards for students in the youngest grades might not be age-appropriate, and instead too difficult.
Fisher stressed she is still in favor of using TVAAS to measure progress even as standards shift, but the student test scores making up the TVAAS data should not have been given the weight they had.
“I believe in using that,” Fisher said. “I do not want to defend an ineffective teacher.”
Ringstaff said he doesn’t think it will change how teachers approach their craft, because he believes the vast majority want to do well.
To ensure teacher quality, it is up to schools and school systems to make sure there are opportunities for professional development as new standards are introduced, he said.
He maintained tying TVAAS data to teacher licensure was not the best way to ensure teachers do well.
“What they did is fair to teachers,” Ringstaff said.