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Grading the Graders

Most teachers spend hours grading papers. At some point during their day they have to pore over a stack of assignments and explain to society’s next generation what it is doing wrong in the hope that it will improve. This year, that hope has become more urgent.

Student success has always been the ultimate goal of teaching, but recently it has become a fixation. Teachers depend on their students to do well. Now, to teach well is not enough.

Teachers are being graded like they are students.

Statewide, teachers are beginning to feel the effects of Colorado Senate Bill 10-191, which requires educators of every level and position to be assessed under a rigorous new evaluation system.

The measure is in its second year of implementation and for Pueblo teachers, this is the year that counts.

Last year, District 60 and District 70, along with other districts throughout the state, participated in a pilot program that served as a preview for the system. Known as a hold harmless year, the preview could not penalize a teacher for a poor evaluation.

According to a Colorado Department of Education fact sheet, the previous school year “gave all educators the opportunity to learn about the system in a lower-stakes environment.”

This year, the evaluation system has official consequences, and if teachers fail to adhere to Colorado’s academic standards for two consecutive years, their jobs may be at risk.

District 60 is no stranger to academic pressure. For the past five years, the district has been making an effort to turn itself around before the state steps in.

Teachers in turnaround districts are held to the same standards as those who are not.

“The odds are definitely stacked against them,” said Suzanne Ethredge, president of the Pueblo Education Association.

“You’re already starting low” when you’re in a turnaround district.

“If you are a teacher in a turnaround school, you’re actually penalized on test scores,” she said.

Fifty percent of a teacher’s evaluation under the system requires measurable growth in students. The other half stems from professional practices.

This means that teachers can be evaluated on criteria everywhere from a student’s reading comprehension to keeping in touch with parents.

Under SB 191, Colorado school districts are allowed to choose how student growth is measured.

In Pueblo, student growth is measured by a variety of different test scores, a practice that has long been criticized by educators.

“In one area (District 60) students don’t have the resources that students in another area have,” Ethredge said.

“I think that comes into play with standardized test scores.”

Amy Spock, vice president of District 70’s Pueblo County Education Association and a science teacher at Pueblo West High School, also acknowledged, “Some kids don’t take testing seriously.”

SB 191 puts teachers in a position that makes them so geared toward preparing students for testing that other vital parts of the job can become neglected.

“Its intention was to create an evaluation system but it never took into account that it put some punitive criteria on teachers and takes them away from teaching,” said Roxy Pignanelli, president of the PCEA.

Spock said teacher workload has increased tremendously since the system has been in place.

“You have grading and your lesson plans. You have goals that you have to keep track of. You have to provide a student work sample,” Spock said.

Teachers are also expected to monitor test scores and compile information for their principals to evaluate them by.

“It’s a lot of pressure on teachers,” Spock said.

“Is it really fair to use standardized testing to determine the performance of a teacher?”

Colorado academic standards vary in all subjects and grade levels, but their ultimate goal is to ensure that students are prepared for the next grade level.

The criteria and standards teachers are expected to meet make their jobs much more comprehensive, and in some cases, difficult. Teachers have more pressure on them this year and job security has become less secure.

Previously, experienced teachers were only evaluated once every three years and were considered non-probationary. New teachers were on probation for four years before obtaining non-probationary status and in effect, gaining more job security.

Although new teachers were observed prior to the new system, four years of experience in a district generally meant that they would become non-probationary.

“You had some protection,” Spock said.

Under the new system, a veteran teacher could potentially enter probationary status after two years of a poor evaluation.

New, inexperienced teachers are required to have three consecutive years of a good evaluation before reaching non-probationary status.

“It’ll take new teachers longer to obtain non-probationary status, which is kind of scary,” Spock said.

However, if a low-scoring group of students improves within a year, teachers will receive a high evaluation for student growth.

“If your students are growing, as long as you are advancing them, that’s OK,” Spock said.

Students do not even necessarily have to be at grade level at the end of the year for a teacher to receive a good evaluation.

Another concern raised by teachers is the frequency of observations they face. Under the law, teachers are required to meet individual needs of students as part of an evaluation criterion.

Teachers, of all grade levels, have to meet the needs of their students, which is an idea that has generally been welcomed by educators. It is possible, however, for evaluators to miss a moment when teachers are meeting this standard.

“There is still a certain amount of subjectivity. Some of the standards are open to interpretation,” Spock said.

“There’s that personal element,” she said.

Teachers are evaluated by their principals on a four-part scale that at its best, gives teachers a grade of “highly effective.” Lower scores are “effective,” “partially effective” and “ineffective.”

At the high school level, teachers are evaluated by their assistant principals, as well as their principals. For all grade levels, these evaluations can come in the form of observation.

All other school professionals, including principals and assistant principals, are evaluated as well.

Professionals such as speech pathologists, paraprofessionals and psychologists are evaluated also, with more tailored criteria.

Principals are assessed based on the overall success of the school and its teachers, as well as professional practices. If teachers and students score poorly, principals score poorly as well.

“It’s very stressful,” Spock said.

Every year from this year forward, teachers are expected to meet SB 191’s standards and if two consecutive years end poorly, they could lose their jobs.

The ultimate goal of teaching has always been to ensure student success and, for years, test scores have been the standard method to evaluate this.

Just as students take state-mandated tests, teachers and administrators are judged with state-mandated evaluations. So, they are being graded too.

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