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Colorado’s teacher evaluation system is set to change. Here’s how.

A woman in a cardigan sits at her desk in front of an open laptop. A young man or older teenager with floppy brown hair and a hoodie leans over the desk and looks at the screen. She appears to be explaining something to him.

Experienced Colorado teachers with consistently high ratings will get simplified evaluations going forward.

Mark Reis for Chalkbeat

Teacher evaluation is getting an update in Colorado, more than a decade after the state last overhauled its system. 

Starting with the 2023-24 school year, students’ standardized test scores will play a smaller role in teachers’ ratings, rubrics will be more specialized to reflect different jobs, and teachers with consistently high scores will face less scrutiny.

If it works as supporters hope, the system will focus more on helping teachers grow and improve. That contrasts with the current system, which many educators perceive as punitive and which hasn’t improved student achievement much — at least as measured by test scores.

With the updated evaluation system in Senate Bill 70, signed last week, Colorado joins a growing list of states moving away from practices the Obama administration hoped would improve schools. 

The previous law, known as Senate Bill 191, called for teachers’ job performance to be measured half by student academic growth and half by classroom observation of professional practices such as showing a strong understanding of the content and delivering effective instruction. 

Districts could use various academic data to show student growth, but at least 1% of every teacher’s evaluation had to be linked to standardized test scores. Often it was much higher than that. Teachers particularly resented the use of collective measures, in which an art teacher might be rated based on how students at her school or in her district did on reading and math tests.

For years, groups representing teachers and school districts have called for changes, but supporters of education reform, including Gov. Jared Polis, resisted. 

Colorado suspended teacher evaluation for two years during the pandemic. Standardized testing returned this spring, and the state also has a plan to resume school ratings. That helped set the stage for changes to teacher evaluation.

The new law makes several key changes: 

  • 30% of a teacher’s evaluation will be based on student academic growth, rather than the current 50%.
  • No more than 10% of a teacher’s evaluation can be based on collective measures, and those scores must come from students who attend their school. Teachers who are new to a school cannot be graded based on data from years they weren’t there.
  • Teachers who are rated highly effective three years in a row will have simplified rubrics and evaluations.
  • People who evaluate teachers will get more training on how to assess performance and provide feedback.
  • The Colorado Department of Education will develop specialized rubrics to grade educators in specialized fields.
  • School districts will be encouraged to experiment with using peers and teacher coaches to do evaluations and provide feedback.

“This bill shifts the emphasis of teacher evaluation to supporting teacher development,” bill sponsor state Sen. Jeff Bridges, a Greenwood Village Democrat, said on the Senate floor. “Even the best teachers want to improve.”

The law allocates more than $500,000 to develop new rubrics, guidelines, and training around evaluation.

Most education groups see the changes as an improvement on current law, but not everyone thought this was the right year to undertake an overhaul — nor that this set of changes go far enough.

State Sen. Tammy Story, a Conifer Democrat, ran two competing bills. One that would have eliminated the use of test scores entirely died in committee, despite a long list of Democratic sponsors. The second would have suspended the use of test scores during periods of disrupted learning, but she had to amend it substantially to secure passage. 

That bill, which hasn’t been signed by the governor yet, suspends the use of student academic growth in teacher evaluation for the next two school years. 

Story told fellow lawmakers that Colorado was behind other states that have dropped the use of test score data entirely.

“Colorado needs to do the same,” she said. “We need to leave behind the use of standardized growth score testing for evaluating educators because it doesn’t make sense and it doesn’t work.”

As long as Polis is governor, he’s unlikely to entertain proposals that don’t give some weight to test scores, but some education groups still want bigger changes. 

“This doesn’t change our overall perspective that we need a large-scale re-examination of [teacher evaluation],” said Bret Miles, who leads the Colorado Association of School Executives. “We’re saying, let’s look at the big picture.” 

Bureau Chief Erica Meltzer covers education policy and politics and oversees Chalkbeat Colorado’s education coverage. Contact Erica at emeltzer@chalkbeat.org.

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