In many ways, the recently resurrected Assembly Bill 5 would bring needed clarity and rigor to the performance evaluations of California's public school teachers. It nicely balances minimum requirements for all teachers and considerable control by local school districts. What a shame, then, that it also would weaken a key aspect of existing law, making the new bill unworthy of support when it comes before the Senate Appropriations Committee on Thursday.
Teachers unions hate the idea of including student progress on the state standards tests in performance evaluations, but as one court recently ruled, that is state law. And it's a law that should stand.
Assemblyman Felipe Fuentes (D-Sylmar) faces a difficult task with his effort to update the Stull Act, a 1970s-vintage bill that defines some required elements for teacher evaluations. An almost unnoticed 1999 amendment by then-Assembly Speaker Antonio Villaraigosa specified that among those elements, schools must use student scores on the state tests. The reform movement and the Obama administration insist on the use of those tests to measure teacher effectiveness. But unions have vehemently opposed it, and the amendment was largely ignored until a June ruling in a lawsuit against the Los Angeles Unified School District. The judge ordered the district to start including test scores in evaluations.
AB 5 could render the judge's decision moot by gutting that provision of the Stull Act. Fuentes insists that student scores would still count because teachers would be judged in part on the extent to which they used the scores to "inform" instruction. In other words, if the scores show that students are doing poorly on one part of the test, for example, the teacher should show that he or she is spending more time on that topic or teaching it differently. But what's the point if those changes fail to result in actual improvements year after year?
Fuentes and many teachers say that local assessments, such as interim tests given by school districts or devised by teachers themselves, are more helpful measurements of student progress. That's quite possible, and those can be used in evaluations too. The state tests are limited tools, but they are valid and objective ones. Local measurements can be tweaked to make districts and teachers look better; state scores can't. And if students' improvement in local assessments doesn't show up on the state tests, then something is wrong.
Test scores should never become a dominant factor in evaluating teachers, but improving those scores is one part of a teacher's job and thus has a place in the review. The state can't afford to move backward on this simple standard.