Students’ Reviews, Testing Are the Key to Grading Teachers

When it comes to grading teachers, the best metrics may have been right under our noses all along.

A recent study from the Gates Foundation shows that the best indicators of teacher performance in the classroom come from the students; both from their performance on value-added testing as well as from the feedback of students themselves.

Students know when they’re being taught effectively, the Gates Foundation concluded in their preliminary findings. Student perceptions in the classroom often reflected the abilities of their teachers and created a solid backbone for teacher analysis in America’s schools.

More importantly, the influence of student achievement from year to year and the performance of these students in value-added examinations stood out as an important pillar of teacher grading. Additionally, teachers with histories of student achievement tended to extend that success into their own evaluations.

These results were bolstered by student performances in the classroom –the teachers that graded out better often did so on the strength of how their pupils achieved on statewide testing. In fact, the performance of past classes also had a strong relationship with how effective a teacher would be with their current group of students.

The discovery regarding student test results is particularly relevant for this state’s classrooms. For years Wisconsin students have been subjected to a subpar state testing mechanism that fails to accurately measure achievement and growth in schools. The Wisconsin Knowledge and Concepts Examination (WKCE) is woefully ineffective when it comes to measuring student performance beyond the broadest levels. Its inferior status has been the subject of criticism for years, and State Superintendent Tony Evers has dedicated resources to replacing the faulty test by 2012.

The preliminary findings from the Gates Foundation study emphasize how important this new testing mechanism will be. The new test will have to comprehensively measure student achievement in a manner that not only is comparable from district to district, but across the country as well. This would give Wisconsinites a strong base for comparing both student and teacher performance in a measurable way from Madison to Hudson and across the country as well.

Most teacher evaluation in Wisconsin comes from principal observation in the classroom and grading based on a small window of first-hand experience. This is a process that requires large time commitments, is often done only on a yearly basis or worse, cannot be translated between districts, and isn’t entirely effective even when it works.

Educators and school boards across the state balked when the idea of tying teacher evaluation to statewide testing was brought up to adhere to Race to the Top standards. Local districts eventually relented under the condition that no administrative actions could be taken based on evaluations derived from tying student performance to teachers. As a result, any connections between student and teacher would be purely observational and unable to be tied to teacher performance in any way.

While this was a moderate concern with the WKCE, it would be a major missed opportunity if the new and improved state rubric – in line with Common Core of Data standards –played no role in teacher evaluations. What the Gates study finds is that these value-added assessments provide an efficient and accurate way to gauge teacher performance. Combined with elements such as student feedback and historical achievements and results, Wisconsin can create a program that effectively measures just how good its teachers really are.

The state is still several steps away – the WKCE must be completely rebuilt and teachers have to band together and accept a valid method for tying student performance to their own effectiveness –but the blueprint has been laid out. As a new comprehensive testing program comes into place to more accurately measure student performance, its scope should expand beyond producing results for just students.

The Gates Foundation has shown the foundation for managing realistic teacher evaluations begins with the students. The onus is now on Wisconsin to build on that foundation. The re-imagining of the WKCE is a step in the right direction. However, if the reformed test can’t be tied to teacher performance, then the state will have missed an enormous opportunity to better understand what is happening in its own classrooms.

By Christian D’Andrea
MacIver Institute Education Policy Analyst