After months of tense negotiations, leaders of the Los Angeles Unified School District and its teachers union have tentatively agreed to use student test scores to evaluate instructors for the first time, officials announced Friday.
Under the breakthrough agreement, the nation’s second-largest school district would join Chicago and a growing number of other cities in using test scores as one measure of how much teachers help their students progress academically in a year.
Alarm over low student performance, especially in impoverished and minority communities, has prompted the Obama administration and others to press school districts nationwide to craft better ways to identify struggling teachers for improvement.
The Los Angeles pact proposes to do that using a unique mix of individual and schoolwide testing data — including state standardized test scores, high school exit exams and district assessments, along with rates of attendance, graduation and suspensions.
But the tentative agreement leaves unanswered the most controversial question: how much to count student test scores in measuring teacher effectiveness. The school district and the union agreed only that the test scores would not be “sole, primary or controlling factors” in a teacher’s final evaluation.
“It is crystal clear that what we’re doing is historic and very positive,” said L.A. Supt. John Deasy, who has fought to use student test scores in teacher performance reviews since taking the district’s helm nearly two years ago. “This will help develop the skills of the teaching profession and hold us accountable for student achievement.”
Members of United Teachers Los Angeles, however, still need to ratify the agreement. Many teachers have long opposed using test scores in their evaluations, saying test scores are unreliable measures of teacher ability.
The union characterized the agreement as a “limited” response to a Dec. 4 court-ordered deadline to show that test scores are being used in evaluations and said negotiations were continuing for future academic years. The deadline was imposed by Los Angeles County Superior Court Judge James C. Chalfant, who ruled this year that state law requires L.A. Unified to use test scores in teacher performance reviews.
In a statement, the teachers union also emphasized that the agreement rejected the use of the district’s method of measuring student academic progress for individual instructors. That measure, called Academic Growth Over Time, uses a mathematical formula to estimate how much a teacher helps students’ performance, based on state test scores and controlling for such outside factors as income and race. Under the agreement, however, schoolwide scores using this method, also known as a value-added system, will be used.
For individual teachers, the agreement proposes to use raw state standardized test score data. Warren Fletcher, teachers union president, said that data give teachers more useful information about student performance on specific skills.
Critics of using test scores in teacher reviews praised Los Angeles’ proposed new system, saying it uses a wide array of data to determine a teacher’s effect on student learning.
Deasy said he will be developing guidelines for administrators on how to use the mix of data in teacher reviews and has said in the past that test scores should not count for more than 25% of the final rating.
“This is a complex agreement and possibly the most sophisticated evaluation agreement that I have seen,” said Diane Ravitch, an educational historian and vocal critic of the use of test scores in teacher evaluations. “It assures that test scores will not be overused, will not be assigned an arbitrary and inappropriate weight, will not be the sole or primary determinant of a teacher’s evaluation.”
Teacher Brent Smiley at Lawrence Middle School in Chatsworth said: “I will vote yes. I have no doubt that my union leaders negotiated the best they could, given the adverse set of circumstances they faced.”
Labor-relations expert Charles Kerchner called the agreement “a shotgun wedding,” but added, “I think it’s unabashed good news.”
He said it’s notable that value-added measures and test scores have been accepted in some form by the teachers union.
“UTLA has moved beyond a strategy of just saying no to a strategy of trying to craft a useful agreement,” said Kerchner, a professor at Claremont Graduate University.
The district is currently developing a new evaluation system that uses Academic Growth Over Time — along with a more rigorous classroom observation process, student and parent feedback and a teacher’s contributions to the school community. The new observations were tested last year on a voluntary basis with about 450 teachers and 320 administrators; this year, every principal and one volunteer teacher at each of the district’s 1,200 schools are expected to be trained.
The teachers union has filed an unfair labor charge against the district, arguing that the system is being unilaterally imposed without required negotiations.
Some teachers who have participated in the new observation process say it offers more specific guidance on how they can improve. Other educators — teachers and administrators alike — complain that it is too time-consuming.
The tentative agreement, acknowledging the extra time the new evaluations would take, would extend the time between evaluations from two to as long as five years for teachers with 10 or more years of experience.
Bill Lucia of EdVoice, the Sacramento-based educational advocacy group that brought the lawsuit, said he was “cautiously optimistic.”
But he expressed dismay that the union did not reach agreement a few weeks earlier, which he said would have given L.A. Unified a shot at a $40-million federal grant. The district applied for the Race to the Top grant without the required teacher union support and was eliminated from the competition this week.
Negotiations over the tentative pact, however, nearly fell apart. Earlier this week, the union pulled away from the deal on the table, L.A. Unified officials said. And the district discussed holding a Monday emergency school-board meeting to craft a formal response to the court order in anticipation that no deal would be reached. The options included adopting an evaluation system without the union’s consent.
Some members of the Board of Education, who also will need to approve the pact, praised the agreement for taking student growth and achievement into account but gauging this growth through multiple measures. Steve Zimmer said that, just as important, this milestone was achieved through negotiation.
School board President Monica Garcia praised the tentative deal as “absolutely, by all accounts, better than what we have today.”