They will not be getting A’s or F’s just yet, but some Frederick County teachers this year are about to see a change in the way their performance is evaluated.

As part of a state mandate, Frederick County is field-testing a new teacher-evaluation system, which, for the first time, will take student achievement into account when gauging the effectiveness of teachers.

The new system signals a shift for the county, where teacher performance has never been measured based on student progress.

“It was a factor but it was never its own entity,” said Michele Thornton, teacher specialist for administration and leadership.

Under the new system, 20 percent of a teacher’s evaluation will depend on students’ progress. The rest of the evaluation will assess planning and instruction skills, classroom environment and professional responsibilities, all based on classroom observation.

The evaluation program will become mandatory for all Maryland schools in the 2013-14 academic year.

County schools are testing the new system through a “no-fault” pilot program at six schools this year, including Twin Ridge and Spring Ridge elementary schools; Oakdale and Middletown middle schools; and Linganore and Walkersville high schools, said Tracey Lucas, the school system’s director for school administration and leadership.

No-fault means that principals will conduct the new evaluations but will not put them in written form, and it will not count against teachers.

Teachers, counselors and principals from those schools gathered at Linganore High School on Monday to learn about the program, discuss strategies and prepare to implement it in the coming school year.

“This is very messy,” said Lucas about the field-test as she addressed educators who attended the training session. “This is about generating questions and anticipating needs. ... You are really helping us build an entirely new structure of teacher evaluations.”

Although the new evaluations have generated concerns among educators statewide, the county teachers who attended Monday’s training did not seem worried about the change.

Dana Angleberger, a physical education teacher at Oakdale Middle School in Ijamsville, said the new system seems more flexible than she had expected.

“I think this is a great opportunity,” she said. “This is a lot of stuff that we already do.”

Darlene Dombroski, who teaches math at Walkersville High School, was also not nervous about being evaluated under the new system. But she was worried about the effort adding to the ever-growing daily load for teachers.

“It’s just that, can we do one more thing?” she asked.

Maryland committed to implementing a new teacher-evaluation system in 2010 when it won a $250 million Race to the Top grant from the U.S. Department of Education.

The Race to the Top program rewards states if they agree to educational reforms, including tying pay for teachers and principals to student test scores or providing financial incentives for high-performing teachers to transfer to struggling schools.

In 2010, the Frederick County Board of Education declined to participate in the initiative, which its members saw as federal interference at the local level. All seven board members voted against the effort, although they knew the county would ultimately be forced by the state to follow the initiative.

However, that opposition has allowed the county to base only 20 percent of teachers’ evaluations on student performance, Lucas said.

All school systems that are part of the Race to the Top effort are required to base 50 percent of teacher evaluations on student progress, Lucas said. In Maryland, Frederick and Montgomery counties are the only two to oppose the initiative.

The new teacher evaluations are controversial, with some opponents questioning whether it is fair to grade teacher performance based on student progress. Concerns have also been raised that it could force teachers to avoid difficult students.

But county school officials, who have been working on plans for the change since the spring, said they believe their system may avoid those complaints.

Gary Brennan, president of the Frederick County Teachers Association, said the union supports the program that is being tested in the county as teachers and students head back to school this year.

“We have been working with the school system on the program that we are piloting,” Brennan said.

Student progress in the county will be just one of five areas of evaluation, Lucas said. Teachers will be allowed to set their own targets, choosing to focus on a specific group of students, she said.

For example, a teacher may strive to raise math scores among male students by 10 percent. Teachers will not be required to focus on underachieving groups but they will have to get approval for targets from their principal, Lucas said.

Principals will then determine if teachers met those objectives at the end of the year in their written evaluations, Lucas said. County teachers who have tenure are evaluated three times every five years, while non-tenured teachers are evaluated annually.

The state requires that teachers be rated in at least three categories: ineffective, effective and highly effective, Lucas said. But the county has yet to determine if it will add to those categories, she said.

County teachers need three positive annual reviews to earn tenure. Tenure doesn’t mean that teachers are guaranteed a job, but rather that they get due process if their evaluation has not been satisfactory twice, Brennan said. Tenure does not affect a teacher’s pay, he said.

One negative evaluation, however, does not mean that a teacher will be fired. The school system offers additional training and support, especially for tenured staff, Lucas said.

“Our goal is to help our teachers grow,” Lucas said.

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