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Saying that New Hampshire is a high-stakes testing state doesn’t make it true

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Here is a 13 second video of Rep. David Murotake (R-Nashua) talking high-stakes:

Rep. Murotake talks about the Smarter Balanced test as if the test were inherently high-stakes (here is his full testimony).  Do not be fooled: high-stakes is not about the test you use; it’s about how you use the test.

Testing as accountability – a uniquely American mistake

Using student test scores in a punitive teacher accountability system is almost the whole Obama/Duncan education reform strategy (just add charters and stir).

But as Marc Tucker says, “Test-based accountability has been tried and it has failed….in fact, no high-performing country has gotten to the top..that way.”  He goes on to say, “It is doing untold damage to the profession of teaching.”

High-stakes testing for accountability has become probably the single biggest obstacle to improving American education.  It is certainly the biggest obstacle to getting the new standards in place, as the unions, Fordham Institute and many others point out.

Testing and accountability will be a long-running topic at ANHPE (here, for instance) and throughout the country, but this post is not about that big picture.  This is about what “high-stakes” means in the New Hampshire policy debate right now.

The short answer is: New Hampshire is a no-stakes state.  School districts can do whatever they want but, as a matter of state policy and federal agreements, testing in New Hampshire is no-stakes for the next two years and almost no-stakes after that. In fact, New Hampshire uses none of the high-stakes policies salted through the evaluation systems in other states.

If you don’t agree, read on.

What is high-stakes testing anyway?

In Tennessee, teachers who’s students fail to improve lose their licenses.  New York mandates that VAM (value added modeling) be used in the evaluation (and says that it can be used to deny tenure).  In Colorado (here, p.59) and 22 other states, student achievement (test results and other measures of performance) must be 50% of the evaluation score.  Thirteen states mandate in detail how districts must evaluate teachers, giving districts little flexibility.

Five states  – Delaware, Hawaii, Louisiana, North Carolina and Rhode Island – require that low-performing teachers be fired if they fail improve for a number of years.

That is some of what high-stakes use of testing looks like.  And that’s what the teachers’ unions say should be delayed while teachers move to the Common Core.

(Just to be clear, the recent letter from the Nashua Teachers’ Union executive board is not about high-stakes testing.  NTU split from its national union, the American Federation of Teachers, to make that statement in support of a bill sponsored by Nashua Board of Education member David Murotake to prevent use of Smarter Balanced or any other Common Core test in the next two years.)

High stakes for students would be that the test is used as a graduation exam, as it was in NY until the regents backed down.  There is no active discussion of making the tests high-stakes for New Hampshire students.

Is testing high-stakes in New Hampshire?

The first thing to know is that New Hampshire teacher (and principal) evaluation policy is a recommendation, not a mandate.  NY and MA, for instance, mandate most of the key elements of their evaluation policies.

Two task forces of teachers, union staff, administrators and experts (Phase I a and phase II) worked over 18 months to develop the New Hampshire teacher evaluation model, as it is called.  But school districts can use it as a starting point or disregard it entirely.  They can do whatever they want.  Within limits.

The limits are set by the flexibility waiver the New Hampshire Department of Education negotiated over many months of discussions with the U.S. Education Department.  And New Hampshire has, far and away, the best waiver in the country.  Instead of agreeing to the punitive federal teacher evaluation policy, New Hampshire used the waiver negotiation to get federal agreement to the New Hampshire teacher evaluation policy that the task forces had developed.  Here’s what it says:

For the 2014/15 and 2015/16 school years, there is no requirement that the statewide assessment be used in teacher evaluation at all.  After that, some portion of the evaluation must be the test results for teachers in tested subjects only (English and math, maybe science), and then only in schools that accept Title I funds. But no percentage is mandated in the waiver, so it could be minuscule.

Not only that, but teachers will be evaluated as a group – at a grade level in a school, for instance.  It doesn’t make sense to try to attribute a student’s learning to one teacher, so the policy is to look at what the group of teachers might have accomplished.  This is a more sensible approach than in many other states.

NH doesn’t use VAM – we use the much better “Student Growth Percentile”

There is much justified criticism of VAM, but that doesn’t matter in New Hampshire because we use test scores in a different way – something called “student growth” measures.

Where VAM is all about teachers and schools, student growth is focused on students.  Growth models strictly describe whether and how much students have learned, where VAM tries, but often fails, to get at the causes of the change.  (Here’s more detail about all this.)

And growth models do not attempt to isolated the impact of an individual teacher. They are better suited for helping to evaluate groups of teachers, as the NH evaluation model recommends.

The stories you hear from other states do not predict NH results 

So when you hear political opponents of the Common Core talk about “high-stakes” or tell stories about student anxiety in NY, you can tell them to get their facts straight before proposing that the Legislature and the public spend months vetting their legislation.

The Common Core is effective here and teacher evaluation is supportive rather than punitive because the State has worked for years to make those things happen.  There still needs to be more professional development time for teachers, and there are lots of other ways the State could improve, but we should realize that we’ve got a pretty good deal already.

And if you want to do your own research comparing NH to other states’ teacher evaluation policies, try:


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