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Hall, Gainesville to roll out teacher evaluations in January
Statewide pilot program includes student test scores in teacher reviews
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For the first time ever, student test scores soon will factor into evaluations for teachers and principals in Hall and Gainesville school systems and across Georgia under a new statewide program.

The state will roll out a pilot of its new educator evaluation system in January, starting with the 26 school districts that signed on to Georgia's application for the federal "Race to the Top" grant competition. The state won $400 million last year to launch a host of programs aimed at improving student achievement and turning around low-performing schools.

The new evaluation system includes a value-added score — which gauges educators' value based on how much their students gained in one year. Though there's not one uniform way to calculate value-added measurements, the basic concept is to show whether a teacher helped a student improve through test scores, attendance and other factors.

Teachers also will be judged on student surveys and two classroom observations by school administrators, with ratings of exemplary, proficient, developing/needs improvement or ineffective.

Priscilla Collins, Gainesville Exploration Academy principal, said at a recent city school board meeting that about 10 percent of the faculty will be part of the pilot program. That same percentage will be part of the program in Hall County, said Terry Sapp, teacher on special assignment for Hall County Schools.

Those teachers will be judged on their effectiveness as determined by the Teacher Assessment on Performance Standards as well as by the student surveys, which will be administered electronically at every grade level for those teachers who are part of the pilot.

"We won't make any employment decisions based on the pilot," Collins said. "...They are piloting this to determine the validity and reliability of these measures, to provide them with feedback."

Principals will be judged based on their ability to retain effective teachers, their school's student attendance and surveys filled out by the teachers in their schoolhouse, among other measurements.

For teachers in subjects where there is no standardized test — like chorus or chemistry — districts will have to come up with student learning targets for classes to meet rather than relying on standardized test scores.

Collins said that amounts to about 70 percent of Gainesville teachers. The district is developing those targets and must submit them by Thursday.

And eventually, the state plans to link the evaluations to merit bonuses for teachers and principals who do well.

Teacher evaluations are not new to Georgia — districts across the state have evaluated teachers and principals for years. But this is the first time the state has mandated that student test scores be part of that process, and it's the first statewide system that eventually will be rolled out to all 180 districts.

Value-added measurements like the one Georgia plans to use have drawn attention nationally — and some criticism — after The Los Angeles Times printed the names and scores for every teacher in the Los Angeles school district in April. Critics say it's difficult to track which teacher is responsible for a student's academic progress because many students get tutoring or extra help from a variety of teachers.

And experts on value-added measurements say states must be careful not to make their calculations too simple because it could create inaccurate results.

For example, a school can't just take a student's test score and subtract it from the previous year's score to calculate how the teacher influenced them, said Bill Sanders, a retired University of Tennessee professor who helped develop a value-added measure for the North Carolina-based SAS Institute.

Instead, calculations must take into account how much a student was absent, whether the student transferred into the school mid-year or whether the class got a new teacher after Christmas break, he said.

"What people think is that every principal or teacher ought to be able to take a $2 calculator and scratch pad and go to the dining room table and calculate their own value-added measure. What you'll get back is completely unreliable," Sanders said. "I fear a backlash when that happens where all value-added processes get painted with the same brush."

Teachers say they hope the state doesn't rush through rolling out the evaluation system.

"To do evaluations well will require significant agreement on the instrument, significant training of those who will use it and significant amounts of time to actually accomplish it," said Tim Callahan, spokesman for the Professional Association of Georgia Educators, which represents more than 80,000 educators across the state. "Replacing our current drive-by evaluation system won't be done easily, quickly or cheaply."

The state's pilot will include about 5,000 teachers and several hundred principals in the 26 districts, which include Gainesville and Hall County - with up to 60 districts being added each year starting in fall 2012. The entire state will be under the evaluation system starting in fall 2014.

Georgia is not alone in its use of test scores to evaluate educators: 23 states use student achievement to judge teachers, according to a recent report from the National Council on Teacher Quality. That number has grown in the past couple of years as states passed new teacher evaluation laws to help them win part of the $4 billion set aside by the U.S. Department of Education for Race to the Top.

Even states that didn't win the money — like Colorado and Washington - have moved forward with developing teacher evaluations. And states hoping to get waivers from the Bush-era No Child Left Behind law must come up with teacher and principal evaluation systems.

"What the adults in school buildings are doing is more important relative to student academic progress than the mailing address of where the students come from," Sanders said. "To ignore this basically says that we as a society are prepared to allow a lot of students to come nowhere close to fulfilling their full academic potential. This is why as a society we can no longer essentially ignore the fact that what happens in schools makes a huge difference."