The Latest Teacher Evaluation Bill and the High Stakes Biology Exam: Potentially a Bad Combination

Should I as a 10th grade biology teacher be attempting to pressure the 9th grade physical science teachers to abandon their studies of physics, chemistry, and earth science, and instead just teach biology so that we all might have higher test scores? Should the 9th grade physical science teachers be evaluated on the scores of a biology end-of-course exam given to students a full year after they have left their class, on a subject they did not even teach?

These questions might seem purely rhetorical, and even a bit ridiculous, but right now the biology end-of-course exam is slated to become high stakes for students next year, and with potential new legislation on teacher evaluation, (SB 5895) high stakes for teachers as well. This combination of assessment and evaluation legislation could easily spell the end of anything but biology in 9th and 10th grade science.

Since the beginning of the new Teacher/Principal Evaluation Pilot (TPEP) in Washington state, student growth data has played a part—the current law states that student growth data, if available and relevant, may be used in the evaluation. Proposed new legislation greatly increases the role that student growth data may play. The proposed bill 5895 states, “Student growth data must be a substantial factor in evaluating the summative performance of certificated classroom teachers for at least three of the evaluation criteria.” Student growth data would include data like the results from the Biology End-of-Course exam.

Not only would growth data be a substantial part of teacher evaluation, but then the results of that teacher evaluation would be used for personnel decisions like involuntary transfers and RIFs. This makes the evaluation an extremely high stakes issue for a teacher. (On a side note, the use of evaluations in such personnel decisions is serious enough to potentially jeopardize all the hard work and positive collaborative experiences pilot districts have had with TPEP so far. 5895 does have many positive sections, including an extended transitional period to 2015-2016, and the provision of training.) The biology end-of-course exam is already scheduled to become extremely high stakes for students because it will be required for graduation.

Furthermore, 5895 also would make it possible to include student growth data from teams of teachers. It states, “Student growth data elements may include the teacher’s performance as a member of a grade-level, subject matter, or other instructional team. Student growth data elements may also include the teacher’s performance as a member of the overall instructional team of a school.” The intent is to promote collaboration, laudable, but it would mean that a team of 9th and 10th grade science teachers could be evaluated on the only state standardized test available—the biology end-of-course exam.

This team-level evaluation is what complicates the matter for science teachers. The only subject area currently being tested in high school science is biology. If we are evaluated in a high stakes manner on our student test scores, and our student test scores are only in biology, does this mean as a team we should only teach biology? If the only science test our students must pass to graduate is on biology, does this further mean that we should only teach biology?

The double impact of the evaluation and science assessment legislation could have a very harmful impact on science education in our state. Chemistry, physics, earth and space science are all extraordinarily important disciplines and they must not be forgotten, but unfortunately the legislation narrows the focus to biology. The biology end-of-course exam could be delinked from graduation as “Necessary To Implement the Budget” (NTIB) because it would save the state 32 million dollars, and save local school districts 16 million in costs for remediation, retesting, rescoring, and developing alternatives such as a Collection of Evidence. (These figures are from the fiscal note on SB 6314.) This money would be better used for teaching and learning, not testing. To improve science education in our state, and to allow student learning in all science disciplines, the biology end-of-course exam should not be a high stakes exam for either teachers or students.

How about that state education budget?

Our state legislature is now in special session.  Their main goal?  Come to agreement on a budget.  It’s not all about the money, however.  Policy bills that have long since died in committee have been resurrected at the beginning of this special session as NTIB, or necessary to implement the budget.

Here’s my take on a few of the budget highlights, (or lowlights as the case may be) and some of the policy embedded in it.

Compensation and Certification:

Salaries: The house proposes freezing step increases for years of experience and education completed, cutting $56 million.  The senate proposes a 3% reduction in state funding for salaries, cutting $261 million.  In a true case of passing the buck without passing along any money, the senate then leaves it up to local districts to negotiate the details of making this 3% cut work.  The governor proposes a 1.9% decrease instead of the senate’s 3%, saying teachers have already had a 1.1% cut from the loss of LID days.

Given that the house cuts so much less overall than the senate, the house proposal seems preferable, right?  Well, probably.  However, the value of master’s degrees and years of teaching experience has been hotly debated in our state and around the nation this spring. While no legislation on this passed this year, it is definitely being considered for the future. The senate did pass HB1443, sponsored by Senator Rodney Tom, which establishes a work group to study “how to reduce the number of tiers within the existing salary allocation model.”  Earlier this year he proposed limiting the number of years of experience on the salary schedule to eight, and limiting salary increases for masters degrees to math and science teachers.

Teaching is the only profession I know of where you are expected to work the last 15 years of your career with no hope of a raise.  Also, shouldn’t all teachers be encouraged to improve their practice through further education?  If salary steps are frozen while a workgroup studies reducing them permanently, that paves the way for future legislation.  How are outstanding new teachers ever going to be attracted to the profession with such a system?

Cost of Living Allowances:  A bill with the fun title of “Reducing Compensation for Educational Employees” would suspend the COLAs for another two years.  The house, senate, and governor plan to do this.  The COLA, initiative 732, was approved by voters in 2000, but has now been suspended for 4 years.

National Board Certification is a rigorous professional development program which focuses on making  a positive impact on student learning.  About 10% of teachers in Washington are nationally certified. Stipends for National Board Certification have been in place in Washington state since 1999.  Losing this stipend would be an approximate 10% pay cut to a teacher in the middle of the salary schedule, ON TOP OF all the other pay cuts faced by teachers this year.  The house would more or less keep them intact, the senate would make severe cuts, and the governor would suspend these completely.

Curently, it is free to renew a continuing (clock hour) certificate.  HB 1449 would impose a processing fee for this and other certification events.  This bill has passed the house and may soon pass the senate.  If you need to renew, right now might be the time!

Teacher Evaluation:

The Teacher Principal Evaluation Pilot (TPEP) was instituted last year by our legislature, and will be fully implemented in the 2013-14 school year.  With increasing class sizes, and decreasing school resources and salaries, should teachers be held to new and possibly higher standards?  Should money be spent on piloting a new evaluation system?  Well, my initial response to these two questions was a resounding “No,” but on further reflection I think my answer is probably “Yes.”

Why? Our previous evaluation system was over 25 years old and needed to be overhauled.  Some of the old categories such as “Interest in teaching students” were ambiguous and seemed difficult to assess.  In addition, there has been an extremely high level of collaboration between teachers, principals, superintendents, school boards, OSPI, and communities in developing this new system.  It would be a shame to put an end to the cooperation and work that has taken place so far.  I still have serious concerns, however, with the new criterion of “using multiple student data elements” especially when that is defined as “change in student achievement between two points in time.”  It will be interesting to see how the pilot districts deal with this.

The governor would maintain the TPEP program, while the senate would expand the number of pilot districts. The house would offer incentive grants to early adopting districts.

Senator Rodney Tom’s HB1443 amendment again rears its ugly head with teacher evaluation.  This bill would RIF teachers by evaluation, starting this year.  However, the new evaluation system is not yet even in place!  Districts are still using the old evaluation system that everyone agrees needs to be replaced, and teachers would be RIFed under this old system.  Is our old evaluation system up to this RIF task?

Using evaluations for RIFing would undermine the collaborative work that has been accomplished to date on the new teacher evaluation system.  1443 restricts collective bargaining rights; local policies regarding RIFs would be superseded by a one-size-fits-all plan for the entire state.  Districts already have procedures in place for removing low performing teachers–if those procedures are not working, then they should be modified.  If a teacher does not fulfill their duties and then is unwillling or unable to improve, then they should not be in our schools.  However, due process should be followed when a teacher is terminated, and a RIF action should not be a substitute for this.

So HB1443 passed the senate, but does it have a chance when it heads back to the house for approval of the amendments?  Bills with more extreme versions of these evaluation/RIF/salary ideas made little headway in the house earlier in the session, but we’ll see what kind of support 1443 has.

Student Assessment:

Science Assessment: The House Education Committee is hearing a substitute to HB 1410 on Monday, May 9.  Will there be a biology end of course exam or a comprehensive science test next year?  If the test is comprehensive, will earth science be given the boot?  How about the sophomores I have in class right now–do they or do they not need to have passed the science HSPE they took in April to graduate?  One possibility is requiring students who fail it to take a third year of science–but many districts may not have the appropriate course offerings, staffing, or resources for this.  If there are so many questions and uncertainty regarding this exam, why is it all being carried out in such a high stakes environment?

The HB1443 chimera doesn’t stop at dealing with teacher salaries, evaluation, and RIFs.  It goes on to science assessment, proposing an as yet unwritten comprehensive test for next year, and an expensive third year science requirement for students who fail the test.

WAKids:  Standardized testing for the young’uns?  Well–sort of.  This standardized kindergarten readiness assessment is intended to inform instruction, and passed the house and senate.  It would only be required in state-funded full day kindergartens.  The bigger question:  When will the state fund full day kindergarten?

Special Ed assessment:  HB1519 modifies the assessment (the WAAS) for students with significant cognitive disabilities so that it can more closely match an individual student’s IEP goals.  Supported by OSPI and the WEA, passed by the legislature, signed by the governor.

Math: The number of math end-of-course exams required for graduation by this year’s sophomores and freshmen was reduced from 2 to 1.  Good for the students and also saves money.  Passed and signed.

Class size: Both the house and senate would eliminate K-4 class size funding and I-728 money.

What’s Next?

The May 15 RIF deadline is almost here–however, HB 2110 is being heard May 9, and would extend the RIF deadline to June 15.  It would be difficult, but not impossible, for this bill to pass in time to affect this school year, but this would allow for implementation of Senator Tom’s RIF by evaluation amendment.  What is truly terrible is that RIFs will happen, however and whenever they do, leaving us with fewer teachers for our students.

It’s not all up to the legislators.  Washington voters passed I-1053 last November, which requires a two-thirds majority of the legislature to even make minor changes in the amount of taxes.  This allows a minority to veto the decisions of the majority.  A budget has two parts: expenses and revenue.  Both must be examined in order to provide a fully functioning education system. Washington state educators need to make their opinions heard, through their voice and through their votes.