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Five years ago, Washington, D.C. became a centerpiece in what became a national push to improve teaching by tying raises and job performance reviews to improvements in student test scores.
Then-chancellor Michelle Rhee made test scores count for up to 35 percent of evaluations for teachers who taught subject areas with standardized tests, a move supported by many in the school reform movement, including the Department of Education’s Race to the Top program, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and others. In 2010, Rhee made headlines for firing 241 teachers, including 165 who received poor appraisals under the new evaluation system.
That’s why a Thursday announcement from current D.C. School Chancellor Kaya Henderson, Rhee’s predecessor and former deputy, could make waves across the country. Her district will take a break next year from tying teacher evaluations to students’ test scores. She said she still believes in using test scores to assess teacher performance, but said the new Common Core-based tests have to be assessed first to ensure they accurately reflect student learning. The new online tests were piloted in schools across the country this spring, but next year will be the first time students receive scores on the exams.
“I want my teachers focused on teaching and not worried about whether or not the hiccups that come with implementing a new test are going to impact their livelihood,” said Henderson, who notified teachers of the change in a letter.
Washington, D.C. has made marked progress on national standardized tests since Henderson took over, although it has been embroiled in a cheating scandal that many have tied to the pressure of high-stakes testing.
A spokeswoman for the federal Department of Education said in a statement, “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.”
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.
For more on Common Core, visit our Education Desk, and for Special Education Correspondent John Merrow’s coverage of Michelle Rhee and Washington, D.C., visit Learning Matters.
Leah Clapman is Executive Director, PBS NewsHour Student Reporting Labs (SRL) and Education. She created SRL in 2009 as an experiment to engage middle and high school students with current events and the public media mission to educate and inform. The program has engaged over 35,000 students and won numerous awards including the 2022 Edward R Murrow for the "On Our Minds" youth mental health podcast. Leah manages partnerships with local stations, national and international organizations to bring diverse youth voices into newsrooms, events and digital content innovation initiatives.
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