Senate votes to kill mandate tying student test scores to educator evaluations

Public school educators chalked up a big win on Thursday, May 26, when the Massachusetts Senate approved a budget amendment to kill a state mandate that ties student test scores to educators’ evaluations. Since the House did not take a similar step, the issue will have to be resolved in a joint House and Senate conference committee.

Less Testing, More Learning

If the Senate’s position prevails, the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education will have to eliminate the regulatory requirement that districts create District-Determined Measures to generate “student impact ratings” as part of the educator evaluation system. DDMs, as they are called, must include locally developed assessments and metrics based on MCAS or other state-mandated standardized tests.

In a message emailed to MTA members on Friday, MTA President Barbara Madeloni wrote, “You did it. The much-hated District-Determined Measures mandate took it on the chin in the Senate yesterday. Chalk one up for union power!!!”

The amendment, filed by Senator Michael Rush (D-West Roxbury), was approved on a voice vote after a day of heavy advocacy by educators at all levels, including those being evaluated under this system and those who conduct evaluations. Last week, the Massachusetts Association of School Committees board voted unanimously to support the elimination of the impact rating mandate.

In a position paper on the issue that was distributed in the State House, the MTA and AFT Massachusetts described the DDM mandate as “invalid, unreliable and educationally undesirable.” The organizations cited research saying that there is no valid way to attribute a particular student’s test scores to the actions of a particular teacher. They note, for example, that students’ performance in a class with the same teacher and same curriculum can vary widely, with the differences attributable to factors other than teaching.

They also describe how basing evaluations on student scores “discourages collaboration among educators because it incentivizes educators to compete for the best students and the best test scores” and “narrows instruction to the tests that ‘count,’ often at the expense of creative and engaging lessons and projects.”

The arguments made by classroom educators were strongly bolstered by superintendents, who contacted their senators in significant numbers to say that they don’t find the mandate helpful at improving teaching and learning in their districts.

The requirement to include student test scores in educator evaluations in Massachusetts and many other states was initiated by the federal government, which tied it to Race to the Top grant money and later to state waivers from No Child Left Behind. That requirement was seen as contributing to the excessive focus on testing that has been growing in recent years, and it led to a major backlash across the country. As a result of that backlash, the Every Student Succeeds Act, signed into law last December to replace NCLB, specifically prohibits the federal government from making such a requirement.

The passage of ESSA, which opened the door for states to repeal test-score-based evaluations, was an important factor in Thursday’s vote in the Senate.

“Common sense prevailed in the Senate.”

— MTA President Barbara Madeloni

“Common sense prevailed in the Senate,” said Madeloni. “We are going to continue our advocacy to repeal this burdensome mandate until it is finally gone and our members can refocus the energy that has been wasted on this to teaching and learning.”

In other education news coming out of the Senate, Madeloni wrote the following to MTA members:

“In other good news, the Senate passed an amendment that maintains the moratorium on increases to municipal health insurance premium splits for retirees in those communities that entered the Group Insurance Commission or implemented plan design modifications as part of 2011 municipal health insurance changes. Members taking action in coalition with other labor unions gave us this success.

“Unfortunately, we were unsuccessful in stopping the Senate from passing a shortsighted amendment for a study commission on higher education costs focused primarily on employee benefits. This measure, similar to one already approved by the House, appears to blame union members for concerns about deferred compensation that stemmed from highly publicized benefits accruing to a couple of high-level administrators — administrators who were not party to any collective bargaining agreement. The commission would not be looking at the general inadequacy of state funding for public higher education, which is what its focus should be. We’ll be keeping a close eye on this issue and ensuring that the union voice is heard.”