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Editorial

Teachers and test scores

A lawsuit spotlights the need for unions to work with school districts on effective evaluations.

November 17, 2011

Smaller schools? More charters? Those are yesterday's headlines in the world of school reform. The hot-button topic now is the inclusion of student test scores in teacher evaluations. Yet as school administrators and the teachers union battle it out in current contract negotiations in Los Angeles, who would have guessed that state law addressed this issue long ago?

A lawsuit filed by a group of parents, aided by the reform group EdVoice, claims that the Los Angeles Unified School District must include standardized test scores or some other measure of student progress to comply with the 40-year-old Stull Act. Though filed only against the district, the suit has statewide implications.

The Stull Act mainly concerned itself with the appeals process for teachers who had been fired. But it included some common-sense language about teacher evaluations, instructing school districts to make student progress one of many factors in teachers' performance reviews. In 1999, specifics were added to the law, requiring teacher evaluations to measure that progress in part through state-approved assessments.

The law's wording is reasonable and clear. Yet school districts have ignored even its oldest and most basic provisions. Even teachers unions complain that their performance reviews have been a joke for years, with almost every review granting the highest rating and few teachers receiving valuable suggestions for improvement.

Test scores — not the raw scores but measurements of how much students improved each year with specific teachers — are one obvious way to add student assessments to teacher evaluations. But the law doesn't prescribe how progress has to be measured, and neither does EdVoice. Graduation rates could count. So could portfolios of student work, if the state could come up with approved ways of using them to gauge progress.

We share union concerns about over-reliance on student test scores in teacher performance reviews. According to education experts, the tests are useful only for measuring the top 10% and bottom 10% of teachers, and tell little about the vast majority in between. Still, they could be used as a starting point, to provide training for the most underperforming teachers and to figure out how the most effective teachers are succeeding.

By refusing to entertain the notion that student progress — or lack of it — might have any connection with teacher effectiveness, unions are missing a chance to shape the way these assessments are used to evaluate teachers. If unions won't work with school districts on reasonable, meaningful changes, they can expect more lawsuits that seek to do it for them.

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