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The Michigan House of Representatives education committee, and chair Pamela Hornberger, must decide whether to delay a scheduled increase in the role of test scores in teacher evaluations from 25 to 40 percent.

The Michigan House of Representatives education committee, and chair Pamela Hornberger, must decide whether to delay a scheduled increase in the role of test scores in teacher evaluations from 25 to 40 percent.

Koby Levin

As a deadline looms to make test scores a bigger part of teacher evaluations, Michigan lawmakers race to change the law

With months remaining before schools across the state are required to turn in teacher evaluations that rely on test scores more than ever before, lawmakers are rushing to change the law.

In two committee hearings on Tuesday, state legislators from both parties hurried to limit the use of standardized tests to judge teachers’ work this school year, hoping to beat out a rapidly approaching May deadline. The senate education committee unanimously approved a bill that would delay the issue until next school school year.

Current law requires schools to base 40 percent of a teacher’s evaluation on test scores starting this year, up from 25 percent last year.

“At this point, it’s very time sensitive,” said Ken Horn, the Republican senator who proposed a bill to keep the role of test scores at 25 percent of teachers’ evaluations until next school year.

The looming shift to a greater reliance on test scores has upset teachers and the state’s education associations. An uptick in teacher dissatisfaction could be dangerous in a state that is already struggling to attract new teachers — one reason lawmakers are looking for a quick fix.

Grading teachers has long been a live wire in education policy. When educators went on strike in Denver last month, for example, a salary system based on teacher performance was at the center of the dispute.

Horn wants to push the issue off until 2020 to allow for more discussion. To do so, he’ll need the support of his Republican colleagues in the House. Several members of the House education committee said Tuesday that they have not yet solidified their views on the issue. During the previous session, the House overwhelmingly approved a bill that would have permanently limited test scores to 25 percent of teacher evaluations.

Horn spoke for several Republican senators when he argued that increasing the percentage to 40 puts an undue burden on teachers. He called the current evaluation system, updated just four years ago, a “pile of rules and regulations that are smothering education processes.”

Educators note that standardized test scores are inextricable from poverty, unstable housing, and other issues in students’ home lives that educators can’t control.

“Forty percent is a lot to put on the backs of teachers when they don’t have control over what’s going on in those kids lives,” said Jennifer Raicevich, a middle school science and math teacher in Romeo.

Educators also note that art and gym teachers should not be evaluated based on test scores that have only an indirect connection to their work.

Raicevich, a member of the Michigan Education Association, a teachers union, works as an evaluation liaison between the Romeo district and its teachers. She says teachers are happy with the way the district uses student growth data in evaluations, but that they would still like test scores to receive less weight overall.

Adding to the concerns, some of the test scores that would be used to evaluate teachers wouldn’t be up to date.

If the legislature doesn’t act, some teachers’ evaluations will be based partly on Michigan’s standardized test, the M-STEP — another shift required under current state law. The results of that exam aren’t available until the summer, so evaluators would have to rely on data from the previous year. The test is only given to students in some grades and subjects, so lots of teachers would still be evaluated based on tests other than M-STEP.

Many districts get up-to-the-minute data on students’ learning from so-called tracking tests, such as the NWEA. Those tests have often been used for the test-score portion of teacher evaluations.

Much of Michigan’s teacher evaluation system was built with bipartisan support and the backing of teachers unions. It centers primarily on classroom observation. Under the law, administrators are required to structure observations around a rigorous, research-based list of criteria.

The addition of test scores to the mix in 2015 was controversial. But observation still accounts for 75 percent of each teacher’s evaluation.

Representatives from education groups representing Michigan superintendents, principals, and intermediate school districts spoke in favor of keeping test scores at 25 percent of evaluations.

Several business groups, including Business Leaders of Michigan and the Detroit Regional Chamber, registered their support for increasing the role of test scores.

The annual evaluations boil down to a single rating: “highly effective,” “effective,” “minimally effective,” or “ineffective.” Repeated ratings of “ineffective” can cost a teacher his or her job.

Because districts have broad leeway to choose their own evaluation tools, the evaluation data is inconsistent across the state. In the affluent suburb of Troy, 93 percent of teachers were deemed highly effective. Bloomfield Hills, a nearby, socioeconomically similar district, gave only 23 percent of its teachers that distinction.

Almost all teachers in Michigan — 98 percent last year — are rated “highly effective” or “effective.”

Some say evaluations aren’t meant  to provide usable statewide data on teacher effectiveness anyway.

“This evaluation system wasn’t built to compare teachers across districts,” said Bob Kefgen, director of government relations for the Michigan Association of Secondary School Principals. “It was built to help teachers improve their practice.”

But some advocates say there are good reasons to identify teachers who are truly highly effective.

“One of the benefits of student growth data is that it leads down the road to being able to have a better human capital strategy, so we make sure the students with the greatest need are equipped with the best teachers,” said Brian Gutman, director of external relations for Education Trust Midwest, an advocacy group. Gutman thinks the 40 percent law should stand.

That idea might not sit well with conservative lawmakers who worry that a truly statewide database of teacher quality would cut into local control.

“It puts too many restrictions on teachers and districts, and they’re opposed,” said Jon Bumstead, a Republican on the house education committee, of the evaluation law that would boost the role of test scores. “To me it’s more of a local issue.”

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