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In Texas, Battle Brewing Over Teacher Evaluation Rules

A new state policy that ties teacher evaluations to student performance on standardized tests is drawing criticism from a range of sources. It is likely to be a topic of discussion Wednesday at a Texas House Public Education Committee hearing.

When Texas education officials announced an updated teacher evaluation system in May, it ended a nearly two-year stalemate with the Obama administration and brought the state closer to securing a final waiver from federal No Child Left Behind requirements.

But the challenges for the state’s new policy — which for the first time ties teacher assessments to student performance on standardized tests — could be just beginning. Both the approach and the federal involvement it represents have drawn opposition from a range of sources, including teacher groups and each of the state’s candidates for governor. 

“I think the difficult piece of this would be finding some reasonably harmonious relationship between the teachers, the Texas Education Agency and the feds,” said state Rep. Jimmie Don Aycock, the Killeen Republican who chairs the House Public Education Committee, which is scheduled to consider the topic of teacher evaluations during a Wednesday hearing. 

The new system requires that school districts base 20 percent of teacher evaluations — which are used for pay and employment decisions — on “student growth” data that includes standardized test scores. Aycock said a debate over whether the state should explore such a move — which he said would not be an option he favored — was likely during the 2015 legislative session, despite the high stakes attached to bucking federal requirements.

“I think that discussion is inevitable. Whether it goes anywhere, I don’t know,” he said. “When it comes to the reality, it’s losing potentially billions of dollars, if you thumb your nose at the feds too much.”

When Texas was granted a waiver from No Child Left Behind in September, it faced a condition that it develop a teacher evaluation system that included a focus on student achievement. Without the waiver, the state would risk losing billions in federal funding for low-income students, as well as federal sanctions that would hit nearly all of its school districts for failing to meet the law's performance benchmarks.

As the new evaluation system is piloted in what the Texas Education Agency said would be up to 70 school districts this year, teacher groups are also questioning whether the state has the authority to require the inclusion of standardized test results for evaluations — even with the federal mandate.

“The key education code provisions on teacher evaluation do not authorize the commissioner to dictate to school districts that scores of an individual teacher’s students on state assessments will be a significant factor in the evaluation of that teacher,” Linda Bridges, the president of the Texas American Federation of Teachers, said in a statement. “Yet the commissioner apparently aims to circumvent state law, demand that school districts show ‘fidelity’ to his appraisal scheme and forge ahead with this flawed model under the guise of compliance with bureaucratic edicts from his counterparts in the federal government.”

The transition to the new teacher evaluation system also comes as the Houston Independent School District faces a federal lawsuit, backed by the Houston branch of the American Federation of Teachers, over its own policy tying standardized test results to pay and employment decisions.

Debbie Ratcliffe, a spokeswoman for the Texas Education Agency, said the commissioner would “never ever attempt to circumvent or violate the law.” She said that if legislators believed that the law related to evaluations needed to be clarified, they could do that during the 2015 legislative session.

During the last legislative session, attempts to emphasize student achievement in teacher evaluation hit a roadblock amid overwhelming support among state lawmakers to scale back standardized exams. That action came in response to widespread backlash against a new state testing regime from parents and educators. 

Senate Education Chairman Dan Patrick, the Houston Republican who is now vying to unseat Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst, passed a bill out of the upper chamber focused on updating teacher evaluation in the state. But to do so, he dropped a section that would have weighted student achievement heavily in teacher evaluations, because of fears that it would use standardized test performance as a measurement.

Among those who raised concerns about the measure was state Sen. Wendy Davis, D-Fort Worth, now a candidate for governor. During debate on the floor, she said the legislation ran the risk of “placing yet higher stakes on test scores.” She added that until lawmakers are convinced the statewide tests could accurately reflect student learning and growth, they should “resist modifying the current evaluation system.”

As governor, Davis would continue to oppose an over-emphasis on standardized testing, directing the Texas Education Agency “to fight for all necessary flexibility” under No Child Left Behind, said spokesman Zac Petkanas, who pointed out that “other states, including California and Washington, have stood up to the federal government on issues of accountability and evaluation and still continued to receive funding.”

Republican gubernatorial candidate Greg Abbott also opposes the federal government’s role in creating the new teacher evaluation system, according to spokeswoman Amelia Chasse.

“While Greg Abbott appreciates the work of the Texas Education Agency, he believes the federal government should not have any say in whether the state creates or implements a teacher evaluation system,” she said in an email. “If Texas must have a federally mandated teacher evaluation system, Greg Abbott knows that standardized test scores do not fully capture student progress and achievement.”

Despite criticism from Abbott and Davis, the new evaluation system does count the state’s current governor, Rick Perry, among its supporters.

“The system maintains strong local control and was developed to enable the state to opt out of federal mandates," spokesman Travis Considine said in an email, referring to the No Child Left Behind waiver. "Most importantly, this proposal helps begin a conversation between a principal and a teacher about how they can grow as educators.”

When asked whether Perry believed the federal government had overstepped its role in determining state education policy by requiring the use of student achievement data, Considine said the state had already begun "discussing how to improve evaluating teachers long before the federal waiver was being decided.”

This article originally appeared in The Texas Tribune at http://www.texastribune.org/2014/05/13/texas-battle-brewing-over-teacher-evaluation-rules/.

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