Student performance should be authentic in evaluations

The recent teacher strike in Chicago left approximately 350,000 students without teachers and halted school for over a week. The 29,000 unionized teachers in Chicago protested a wide range of issues, starting from school-day lengths to potential jobs being lost. But amidst the heated debate is a new system of teacher evaluations, something being implemented this year in Fairfax County Public Schools (FCPS) and throughout the Commonwealth.

The new system calls for teachers to restructure lesson plans and strategies based on seven holistic categories (S.M.A.R.T.R.) and are required to give periodic formative and summative assessments in class to monitor student performance. Additionally, teachers are now required to attend a mandatory nine-hour workshop detailing the new changes.

Much of this change adds up to a new focus in teachers’ evaluations, similar to that of Chicago’s. Forty percent of those evaluations will be based on student progress through the year.

This new system, along with its intended benefits, is befuddling at best and can potentially bring some drawbacks.

Through student performance, teachers are now able to pinpoint the strength of a student’s foundation and background in a certain class. According to Jefferson teachers,this could prove to be extra helpful for our students because of the number of different middle schools they come from. In doing so, teachers are able to structure their lesson plans around the individual students, tailored to their strengths and weaknesses, a process called differentiation.

In the long run, teachers are able to benefit from the new evaluations from a department standpoint. Having a better understanding of student performance in-class and a shared teaching goal allows teachers to give beneficial teaching strategies to one another, thus enhancing the learning experience in class.  To this end, core teachers have been asked to develop the S.M.A.R.T.R. goals together, with similar formative and summative assessments that can compare at key times during the year.

These new changes are immediately apparent in a number of core areas. . Geosystems teachers now give a 41-question diagnostic test to students, testing them on a spectrum of topics being covered throughout the year. English teachers are giving timed writings linked to Advance Placement rubrics.

However, because this is the first year FCPS is evaluating their teachers through this system, its potential effect remains uncertain and untested. Some argue that the drudgery of excessive paperwork and extra testing is a conundrum at best, as unnecessary benchmark assessments will only bog down student schedules and detract from teachers’ precious lesson-planning time. Students and teachers argue that the extra time spent gathering data from the assessments do not justify the potential end results.

In order for the new evaluation system to attain its maximum effectiveness, students and teachers need to treat this first year as a trial run, in order to reshape the evaluation process into a meaningful and efficient way of tracking how students are doing in class. Because the new system is mandated by the Commonwealth, all stakeholders need to be sure the process does not become simply one more laborious task for all. And teachers will want to be sure that 40 percent slice of their evaluations is tied to an authentic experience, not just more metrics.

(This article originally appeared in the October 12, 2012 print edition.)