WASHINGTON (AP) — The District of Columbia public school system, one of the first in the country to evaluate teachers using student test scores, announced Thursday that it would suspend the practice while students adjust to new tests based on Common Core standards.
Chancellor Kaya Henderson announced the decision, saying officials are concerned it wouldn't be fair to use the new tests until a baseline is established and any complications are worked out.
The District has fired hundreds of teachers under the system, which was put in place by Henderson's predecessor, Michelle Rhee. Test scores make up 35 percent of evaluations for those who teach students in the tested grades and subjects.
Last week, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation joined the two largest teachers' unions in calling for a temporary halt to evaluating teachers based on Common Core tests. The foundation has spent more than $200 million implementing the Common Core standards nationwide.
The U.S. Education Department has not backed the idea of a moratorium, which is also being considered in New York. Gov. Andrew Cuomo introduced a bill on Thursday that would remove test scores from teacher evaluations for two years, and a handful of states have delayed using test scores to make personnel decisions. But no state that already includes test scores in evaluations has committed to pausing the practice.
"Although we applaud District of Columbia Public Schools (DCPS) for their continued commitment to rigorous evaluation and support for their teachers, we know there are many who looked to DCPS as a pacesetter who will be disappointed with their desire to slow down," Raymonde Charles, an Education Department spokeswoman, said in an emailed statement.
President Barack Obama's administration has offered incentives to states to develop more meaningful teacher evaluation systems and to adopt college- and career-ready standards such as Common Core. That's meant that both have rolled out around the same time, creating conflict. Teachers have expressed concern about being judged on their students' performance as they are learning to teach under the new standards and the new assessments are rolled out.
Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, praised Henderson's move and said she was troubled by the Education Department's response, particularly given that Education Secretary Arne Duncan has lauded District schools for their reform policies.
"The federal Department of Education should be applauding this, not thwarting it," Weingarten said. "When they're thwarting it, you wonder, 'What is that about? Is that about learning or is it about measurement for measurement's sake, or testing for testing's sake?'"
A study published last month in Educational Evaluation and Policy Analysis raised questions about whether evaluating teachers and making personnel decisions based on test scores had any effect on teacher quality. Some critics also believe that such high-stakes testing incentivizes cheating, and the District is one of several jurisdictions that have weathered cheating scandals.
Henderson said she remains committed in the long term to assessing teacher performance based in part on test scores, as the District has done since 2009. More than half of the states have incorporated test scores into evaluations, although the nation's capital has been more aggressive in firing poorly rated teachers — as well as rewarding the top performers with pay raises and bonuses.
"I don't think there's a problem with our evaluation system. I believe it does what we want it to do," Henderson said. "Our teachers have increasingly more and more faith in it. I want them to continue to have faith in it."
AP Education Writer Kimberly Hefling contributed to this report.
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