The Beaufort County School District will test new performance-based teacher evaluations, now that letter grades have been dropped from the state pilot program.
Alice Walton, who has been the district's director of teacher quality for seven years, was at first critical of the new evaluation program. Then, one of its most controversial aspects -- "A" through "F" grades for teachers -- was dropped from the 2013-14 testing period.
State Superintendent Mick Zais advocated the grades as a way to clearly communicate to teachers how they're performing, but many educators deemed them degrading. The state Board of Education sided with them, according to The Associated Press.
The district has informally agreed to participate in the pilot program next school year. The S.C. Department of Education on Friday was still awaiting a letter of formal acceptance, according to a spokesman.
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Seven Beaufort County schools are to participate: Hilton Head Island and Whale Branch Early College high schools; H.E. McCracken and Bluffton middle schools in Bluffton; Hilton Head Island School for the Creative Arts, Bluffton and M.C. Riley elementary schools.
Hardeeville-Ridgeland Middle School in Jasper County also has agreed to participate.
So far, 48 schools in 14 districts have signed on to test the system, according to the Department of Education.
"The changes are coming, and it was determined this is the best way the district and its teachers could have a say in that process," said Beaufort County School District spokesman Jim Foster. "Our teachers don't mind being held accountable for their performance, but they want the system ... to be fair and accurately reflect the quality of their work in the classroom."
Walton said she was relieved to see the letter grades dropped from the plan and liked the part of the program calling for teachers of all experience levels -- from rookies to veterans -- to be evaluated similarly.
"That let me know the state was willing to come up with a final instrument that is fair and consistent across the board," Walton said.
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 Department of Education must include a measurement of how well a teacher's students are progressing academically.
Improvement on students' test scores would account for about a third of a teacher's evaluation under the new plan. Teachers will also be evaluated based on observations by principals and peers, much like current teacher evaluations, as well as the performance of the entire school and a fourth method chosen by each district.
Beaufort County has chosen to incorporate student scores on the Measures of Academic Progresstest, Walton said. The MAP test is given to county public-school students in kindergarten through eighth grade at the start, middle and end of each school year. The test measures reading and math skills.
For core subject areas, student performance will be based on a combination of scores on statewide and local tests. Officials are still determining how to judge performance in non-tested subjects, such as art.
Half of Beaufort County's schools 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.
Follow reporter Tom Barton at twitter.com/IPBG_Tom.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.