Alaska Board of Education pauses teacher evaluation changes

FAIRBANKS — The Alaska Board of Education advanced a proposal this week that would halt a pilot program requiring student achievement data be used in teacher evaluations.

The board voted unanimously to advance the rule change toward public comment at its meeting Monday. It will revisit the proposal to consider final approval at its next meeting in March. The change was made possible by federal reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act several months ago.

Though the change cannot become official until the board approves it, everyone who spoke on the topic Monday expressed confidence that it would make its way through without issue. 

“In light of the possible, I would say probable, reconsideration of our regulations related to educator evaluations, we thought it would be prudent to reconsider that piloting requirement right now,” Susan McCauley, who works for the Alaska Department of Education and Early Development, told the board before introducing the proposal Monday.

The proposal, recommended to the board by state Education Commissioner Mike Hanley, would repeal requirements for a pilot program districts had been working toward implementing this spring. The program would have required districts to begin using student test data to evaluate teacher performance.

Spring 2016 would have been the first year of the new evaluation method. Under state law, districts would have been forced to use student performance data to account for at least 20 percent of teachers’ and administrators’ overall performance ratings. The percentage would have continued to scale up during the next four years until it peaked at 50 percent in 2018-19.

The use of student data in educator evaluations was initially implemented to meet federal requirements. It was one of several key issues mandated by the U.S. Department of Education for the state to receive a waiver from provisions of the federal No Child Left Behind Act.

Had the state not implemented the student data requirement in 2013, the U.S. Education Department most likely would not have given the state a waiver. Without the waiver, Alaska would have fallen out of compliance with No Child Left Behind, because — due to Congress’s long inability to pass a replacement years after its expiration — the act required impossible student proficiency standards.

When the student data requirement was announced in 2013, teachers in Alaska panned the decision. Fairbanks Education Association President Nancy Duez echoed some of those same concerns when praising the board’s recent decision on Tuesday.

“It’s not that we’re opposed to testing. It’s that high-stakes piece to it. Obviously if students aren’t achieving, there needs to be some looking into what is the cause of that,” Duez said. “But to hinge a person’s career on one year’s assessment ... I think that seems pretty harsh.”

The state board forward the proposal to remove the requirement Monday because Congress reauthorized the Elementary and Secondary Education Act several months ago. The reauthorization replaced the long-expired No Child Left Behind with a new law, the Every Student Succeeds Act. The new law, frequently referred to as ESSA, makes the state’s waiver from No Child Left Behind obsolete. That means the state is free to keep or repeal the changes it made to comply with the waiver as it chooses.

Duez responded with optimism Tuesday to the board’s latest action.

“I’m really encouraged that teachers are going to be able to get back to the job of teaching. I think that’s what’s encouraging: to focus on curricula, focus on the student, focus on overall academics and not be focused on the test,” Duez said.

Sue Hull, who serves on both the Fairbanks North Star Borough school board and the State Board of Education was absent when the state board voted to advance the proposal Monday, but she said she agrees wholeheartedly with the decision.

“It wasn’t a good tool, so I’m pleased we’re moving in a different direction,” Hull said. “It injected, in my view, a lot of anxiety for teachers and didn’t (add much).”

Hull said she believes there is a place in educator evaluations for student data but that it should be used to inform teachers’ methods rather than be used as the main method for determining whether they are successful teachers.

Duez has a similar opinion.

“I’m not opposed to people looking at student achievement when you’re looking at the effectiveness of instruction,” Duez said. “If the majority of the class didn’t do well on the assessment then I would have to go back and look at me.”

Contact staff writer Weston Morrow at 459-7520. Follow him on Twitter: @FDNMschools.

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