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Gates Foundation exec: Give students, teachers time on tests

A senior executive of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation is dialing back its position on how standardized testing should be used in high stakes decisions for teachers and students.

“The Gates Foundation agrees with those who’ve decided that assessment results should not be taken into account in high-stakes decisions on teacher evaluation or student promotion for the next two years,” Vicki Phillips wrote in a letter posted on the foundation’s website Tuesday.

In the letter titled “Let’s Give Students and Teachers Time,” Phillips wrote, “A rushed effort to apply the assessments could punish teachers as they’re trying new things, and any hiccups in the assessments could be seen as flaws in the standards.”

Phillips is director of College Ready, a foundation initiative that seeks to increase the number of U.S. students ready for college or work by the time they leave high school.

The Gates Foundation has been at the epicenter of the debate over the Common Core Standards and over coming multistate tests, such as the PARCC assessments Colorado will use next spring. (For exhaustive details on that, see this recent Washington Post story, “How Bill Gates pulled off the swift Common Core revolution.”)

The letter hasn’t seemed to have drawn much attention yet, although American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten put out a news release applauding Phillips’ comments, repeating the view that “we have to de-link the high-stakes consequences of the tests from the standards’ implementation for now.”

Phillips’ letter specifically referenced Colorado, saying, “A number of states, including Kentucky, Maryland, Colorado and Louisiana have provided additional time for teachers to create their own lessons and curriculum, get new professional support, and become familiar with the assessments before they’re used as a measure of teacher performance. Each of these states is taking a different approach, but they all are listening to teachers, and they are all taking steps to align their approach with what teachers need to make the standards succeed.”

Colorado has taken a number of steps that partially delay the impacts of new standards and tests. Here’s the rundown:

  • The Colorado Academic Standards, which include the Common Core for language arts and math, went into effect for all school districts in the school year that just ended.
  • The online PARCC tests are scheduled to be given next spring in all Colorado schools.
  • Because results of those tests won’t be available until late in 2015, the legislature passed a law this spring that allows school and district accreditation ratings issued next fall to apply for the next two school years. Those ratings will be based partly on student academic growth as measured by this spring’s TCAP tests.
  • For the 2014-15 school year, districts will have flexibility in how much – if any – to weight student growth in educator evaluations. Districts will have to gather growth data for all teachers but can choose to weight it anywhere between 0 and 50 percent. The remainder of teacher evaluations will be based on observations of professional practice.

The Common Core and new tests have sparked anxiety both in schools and at the Capitol. Lawmakers defeated proposals to delay both the standards and testing, but they did create a task force to study testing, an effort that kicks off next month (details here).