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Evaluation flexibility bill passes first test

Kenneth Woods and his daughters Breanna Rosser (r) and Taylor Woods (r) reviewed 12 powerful words with sixth grade language arts teacher Patricia Hervey.
Kenneth Woods and his daughters Breanna Rosser (r) and Taylor Woods (r) reviewed 12 powerful words with sixth grade language arts teacher Patricia Hervey.
Tajuana Cheshier/ Chalkbeat TN

A measure that would give school districts one year of flexibility in use of student growth data to evaluate teachers was passed 4-2 Wednesday by the Senate Education Committee.

Supporters of the measure, which would apply to evaluations in the 2014-15 school year, say it’s necessary because of data gaps that will created by the transition to new state achievement tests. Those new tests will be given in the spring of 2015.

“It will be very hard for us to get reliable data in the early summer [of 2015] for evaluation purposes,” sponsor Sen. Mike Johnston, D-Denver, told the committee.

The discussion over Senate Bill 14-165 provided a glimpse at how the political ground has started to shift since the evaluation law, Senate Bill 10-191, passed four years ago with strong Republican support. Two committee Republicans voted against the bill, and some GOP lawmakers this session have been critical of other elements of Colorado’s education reforms, especially statewide testing.

A key element of the SB 10-191 evaluation system requires that half of evaluations be based on student academic growth. (Growth is measured not just by student performance on statewide tests but also by results of classroom, school and district tests. Districts have wide latitude in choosing those tests. Fewer than a third of teachers in Colorado teach subjects covered by statewide exams.) The other half of evaluation is based on a supervisor’s rating of a teacher’s “professional practice.”

District evaluation systems that conform to state requirements were rolled out in every district this school year. But ineffective and partially effective evaluations received at the end of this year won’t count against teachers’ possible loss of non-probationary status.

Evaluation systems are supposed to be fully implemented in 2014-15 under SB 10-191, including the provision that two consecutive years of low evaluation ratings lead to loss of non-probationary status.

Under SB 14-165, schools still would be required to calculate student growth data for teachers. But individual districts could decide how much weight to assign to student growth. A district could keep the original 50-50 formula, or it could decide to base teacher evaluations solely on professional practice and assign no weight to student growth. That provision would be in effect for only a year, and low ratings, no matter how they’re derived, would count against loss of non-probationary status.

The problem is that results from the new 2015 CMAS tests (including the PARCC online tests) won’t be ready until late in the year or early in 2016. That’s because of the need to calibrate and norm the results. That’s too late to use in evaluations that are supposed to be done at the end of previous school year.

Second, because calculation of student academic growth requires at least two years of results, that can’t be done until after 2015-16 test results are available.

The data gap problem also affects the state’s district and school accountability system. A separate measure, House Bill 14-1182, addresses that problem and has passed both houses (see story).

Johnston said the bill also would give districts extra time to refine the student growth part of their evaluation systems. “We have some districts that are ready to go; we have some that are behind.”

Witness Jill Hawley, associate education commissioner, said, “It gives them time to continue practicing on the growth side.” (CDE doesn’t have a formal position on the bill.)

Kerrie Dallman, president of the Colorado Education Association, testified that the “overwhelming message” from CEA members “is that their districts are not ready to use student growth in teacher evaluations next year.”

Representatives of the Colorado Children’s Campaign, Democrats for Education Reform and the Colorado Association of School Boards also spoke in favor of the bill.

Natalie Adams, a Jefferson County parent activist, also supported the bill but had no praise for SB 10-191. “There has been a lot of very bad [education] legislation passed in Colorado, and this is one of the worst.”

Republican committee members also were critical.

Sen. Vicki Marble, R-Fort Collins, proposed an amendment that would have given school districts permanent flexibility in whether to use growth data in evaluations (thereby blowing up a key element of SB 10-191).

Sen. Scott Renfroe, R-Greeley, liked that idea, saying, “This gets it back to local control … instead of us sitting in Denver deciding what needs to be done.”

But Aurora Democratic Sen. Nancy Todd, who was chairing the meeting, ruled Marble’s amendment out of order, saying it didn’t fit under the bill’s title.

The four committee Democrats voted to send the bill to the Senate floor, with Marble and Renfroe voting no. Sen. Mark Scheffel, R-Parker, was excused and didn’t attend the hearing.

No price sticker, no vote

Senate Education took testimony on Senate Bill 14-167 Wednesday but delayed a vote because the bill’s “fiscal note” hadn’t been prepared. (A fiscal note is a formal estimate by legislative staff of what a measure will cost.)

The bill is sponsored by freshman Sen. Rachel Zenzinger, D-Thornton, and would create a pilot program under which two groups of alternative education campuses would receive extra funding to develop programs to improve the graduation rates and overall success of their students.

Alternative campuses are schools that serve at least 95 percent students defined as at-risk. Those schools have a special definition of at-risk, including students who’ve been expelled or suspending multiple times, students with criminal records or gang involvement, homeless students and students who have far fewer high school credits than they should for theie age. Such school typically serve high-school age and older students.

There are 81 such campuses in the state, and their dropout rates typically are higher and their graduation rates lower than the state as a whole.

Although the fiscal note hasn’t been written, Zenzinger had an informal analysis done that puts the bill’s price tag at $1.2 million.

Given that the Senate will be tied up next week considering the 2014-15 state budget bill, Zenzinger’s bill may not come up for committee consideration for two weeks. That could put it at the back of line of spending bills being considered this year.

Get more information about alternative campuses on this CDE page, and see the current list of such schools here. Read the bill text here.

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