Montgomery school officials worry about calls to use standardized tests in teacher evaluation

February 19, 2013

Brian Donlon took notes in a fat three-ring binder, a veteran teacher critiquing the work of a less experienced peer. He learned the young teacher gets visibly frazzled during instruction and sometimes gives students answers to questions without encouraging them to think on their own.

If she does not make progress, Donlon will be one of the people to help decide whether she gets fired.

Donlon, a high school social studies teacher, serves on the Montgomery County Public Schools’ Peer Assistance and Review panel, a 16-person team of principals and teachers that recommends which educators get to stay and which will lose their jobs.

The program, pairing first-year or struggling teachers with experienced educators, is at the heart of the district’s teacher evaluation system. But Donlon, the teachers’ union and school administrators worry about its future in the face of new state and federal education changes.

“We’re focused on the quality of our teaching,” Donlon said. “Not on the quantity of a one-day test.”

The Maryland State Department of Education recently rejected Montgomery’s teacher evaluation system and those in eight other districts, directing them to increase the use of state standardized test results in judging teacher performance.

But it will not be easy to make the switch in Montgomery, where Superintendent Joshua P. Starr has called for a national three-year moratorium on standardized tests and the district has rejected $12 million in federal funds from Race to the Top to avoid having to change its system. Despite acknowledging an achievement gap among its students, county officials also see little need for change in a high-performing district.

Montgomery is one of the few systems in the region to use peer review in its evaluations. The district does not require standardized tests in teacher evaluations, instead using them as one of many potential pieces of data to use “when deemed appropriate,” along with student portfolios, department exams and anecdotal and observational records.

“I don’t understand why we would use a test that is going away in a couple of years as a significantly determining factor in a teacher’s performance,” Starr said.

The Maryland School Assessment soon will be replaced with new, more rigorous exams to reflect the Common Core national education standards.

David Volrath, lead for teacher and principal evaluation for the state Education Department, said Maryland is working to compromise with districts while complying with federal changes. The goal, he said, is to make students “the center of how we look at education and how we evaluate teachers and administrators.”

School systems across the country, on average, use standardized test scores to account for 20 percent of the measure of student learning when evaluating teachers, Volrath said. Maryland would like to mirror that.

More than 5,700 teachers have gone through the peer assistance program between 2000 to 2011, according to the Montgomery County Education Association. Of those, more than 300 teachers have resigned or retired in the face of dismissal and 245 were fired. That is an average departure of about 50 teachers each year in a district that has more than 11,800 teachers. Nationally, school districts with 10,000 students or more released an average of 30 teachers in 2007-08, according to the National Center for Education Statistics.

Before the peer review system, the school system dismissed one or two teachers each year, said Chris Lloyd, vice president of the association. But, he said, it is not just about firing teachers. The program also recognizes educators who are doing well, such as Rockville High School math teacher Carmen Tong.

Consulting teacher Patrick Bilock was in Tong’s classroom Friday to observe. Bilock said Tong is eager to try new things in the classroom, open to suggestions and is “in it for the students to increase achievement,” making her a likely candidate for a permanent position.

“The reason our system works is it’s about professional growth,” Bilock said.

Montgomery schools spokesman Dana Tofig said the district is reviewing its options related to the teacher evaluation system. Montgomery and the eight other counties that had rejected evaluation systems have until May to submit revised plans.

Lynh Bui is a Prince George's County public safety reporter and former Montgomery County education reporter.
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