Teacher Appreciation Day came early in Austin when Texas Education Commissioner Mike Morath announced that standardized test scores will no longer play a large role in teacher evaluation.

Meanwhile, the Texas House of Representatives passed a preliminary version of HB 22, a bill that would overhaul the controversial A-F system. Many districts felt that the standards relied too heavily on STAAR ratings.

Morath’s decision reverses a previous mandate that at least 20% of a teacher’s evaluation be based on value added measures (VAM) such as standardized test scores. The Texas State Teachers Association sued the commissioner last year for including that provision in the Texas Teacher Evaluation and Support System (T-TESS). Other teacher advocacy groups, such as the Texas American Federation of Teachers, the Texas Classroom Teachers Association, and the Association of Texas Professional Educators, filed similar lawsuits and participated in the settlement.

“The profession of teaching is incredibly demanding,” Morath said. “It requires dedication and energy, but it also requires a commitment to continuously learn and adjust. In designing T-TESS, we relied heavily on input from teachers who wanted meaningful feedback on how well students are learning, so they could strengthen classroom instruction.”

Student growth is one of the primary criteria for teacher evaluations, along with a professional development plan and observation-based evaluations. Until now, the state allowed four methods to measure student growth. A statement released by the Texas Education Agency Wednesday said Morath would “remove the reference to the four ways to measure student growth to ensure that districts are clear about the flexibility they have in choosing how student growth is measured.”

Disagreement and lack of clarity on what standardized tests actually demonstrate makes them a poor choice to judge teacher efficacy, the TSTA argued in its suit. Morath acknowledged that subjects merit different methods of evaluation. Art portfolios are different than math tests.

TSTA also contended that state law – Section 21.351 of the Texas Education Code – calls for teachers to be appraised based on “observable, job-related behavior.” Section 21.352 of the Texas Education Code refers to “observable, job-related behavior” as the requirement for appraisal systems designed at the school district level.

Because VAM models like standardized testing are formulated and evaluated based on statistical norms, and not specific teaching environments, it is difficult to observe the effect that a teacher can have on the test scores of particular students. 

“Educators appreciate and deserve a fair, easily understood evaluation system that helps them do an even better job for their students,” TSTA President Noel Candelaria said. “Tying teacher evaluations to test scores only raises the stakes on STAAR testing, unnecessarily raising the stress level of children and teachers alike and angering parents.”

Parents often cite dissatisfaction with the weight placed on standardized tests like the STAAR as one of the reasons they consider private or charter schools for their children as opposed to traditional public schools.

The American Statistical Association released a statement in 2014 recommending less reliance on VAMs as well. “Most VAM studies find that teachers account for about 1% to 14% of the variability in test scores, and that the majority of opportunities for quality improvement are found in the system-level conditions. Ranking teachers by their VAM scores can have unintended consequences that reduce quality.”

Following the settlement, the amended evaluation system will allow individual school districts to evaluate teachers based on “one or more student growth measures.”

“We are glad that we have the ability to set a teacher evaluation policy that makes sense for SAISD,” San Antonio ISD Legislative Coordinator Seth Rau said. “Local control over teacher evaluations without state mandates allows us to design the best possible system to improve our schools.”

Of course, if the district’s A-F ranking remains tied to student scores, that pressure could still be passed on to teachers. More than a dozen State representatives added amendments to HB 22, with more expected before it goes back for a final vote. The amendments signal widespread discontent with the new system.

Lawmakers intend for the revisions, once finalized, to increase clarity to that districts know what they are working toward and what progress to expect.

“This version should incentivize and reward effort and progress,” said State Rep. Diego Bernal (D-123), who is vice chair of the House Public Education Committee. “It has more of a heart. It’s a reform of something that was both unnecessary and honestly harmful.”

Currently HB 22 will reduce the evaluation criteria from five primarily STAAR-based, indicators to three: student achievement, student progress, and school climate. It also allows districts to supplement STAAR data with locally selected exams to give a more complete picture of school performance.

Bekah McNeel

Bekah McNeel is a native San Antonian. You can also find her at her blog, FreeBekah.com, on Twitter @BekahMcneel, and on Instagram @wanderbekah.