Beaufort County school administrators and teachers say they're frustrated by the lack of information about the state's new teacher-evaluation plan, which is based in part on student test scores.
The state was required to create a new evaluation system for teachers and principals in exchange for a waiver from the federal No Child Left Behind law. To qualify for the waiver, the S.C. Department of Education must include a measure of student growth when evaluating teachers.
What that means, exactly, remains unclear, some say.
"There are a lot of unanswered questions," said Alice Walton, the Beaufort County School District's director of teacher evaluation. "We don't have a lot of information."
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Improvement on test scores would account for about a third of a teacher's evaluation under the new plan approved March 5 by the U.S. Department of Education. The other two-thirds would come from observations by principals and peers, much like current teacher evaluations, according to state education officials.
Teachers would receive an "A" through "F" score at the end of each year.
The plan will be implemented as a pilot program in several schools across the state next school year, with the hope of implementing it statewide in the 2014-15 school year.
But Walton said district staff is still deciding whether to participate in the pilot program.
Walton met with state education officials March 22 in Columbia hoping to receive a clearer picture of how the new model would be implemented, but said she received few details. She and school board members have complained the state has sought little input from teachers while developing the plan.
One concern is that some teachers' evaluations would be affected by test scores for courses they do not teach. Instructors in music, art, physical education or similar classes would have 30 percent of their evaluations based on their schools' overall test performance.
Others argue the plan doesn't take into account poverty or life experiences that can influence student achievement.
"Most teachers believe the proposed system is patently unfair and unreliable," said Bernadette Hampton, vice president of the S.C. Education Association. "The National Academy and about every respected statistician, researcher, evaluator and expert argue that standardized-test results should not be used as a measurement of teacher performance when making important personnel decisions."
The district uses evaluations to determine whether to retain a teacher and at what contract level, but they do not affect pay, according to Walton.
Half of Beaufort County schools, however, receive performance-based compensation tied in part to test scores through their participation in a national program for high-need schools. That would not change under the new state plan, Walton said.
Salaries for the remaining half of the district's teachers are determined by years of experience, training and academic credentials.
Walton said teachers do not object to being evaluated, but see the new model as "punitive, which puts a bad taste in educators' mouths."
"It takes away looking at a teacher holistically," Walton added. "Teachers are more than just test scores ... and I don't believe you can get an accurate measure of critical thinking and how students perform as individuals on a standardized test."
State Superintendent Mick Zais has argued the approach is fair because it takes into account past achievement and demographics when determining appropriate goals for each student.
It is also nothing new for the state, he has said. Teachers in the state's teacher development program are evaluated, in part, using the same approach.
"The new educator evaluation system will use student learning as a significant component, though not the only component, to measure educator effectiveness," Zais said in a news release. "This information will improve instructional practices. As a result, students will be the beneficiaries of being taught by highly effective educators."
The (Columbia) State newspaper contributed to this report.