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How to prepare for Common Core testing—and why current teacher evaluation systems won’t help

To prepare for the rigor of Common Core testing, school districts must engage teachers in sustained, in-depth professional development.

To prepare for more rigorous assessments aligned with the Common Core standards, teachers will need more time and opportunities to collaborate with each other, education professor Linda Darling-Hammond told superintendents at the American Association of School Administrators’ National Conference on Education Feb. 22.

But she also warned that using value-added models to rank and evaluate teachers—a practice that is spreading among school districts nationwide—has the potential to impede this work, thereby hindering students’ readiness for Common Core testing.

Darling-Hammond, who is a nationally recognized authority on school reform and teacher quality, is the Charles E. Ducommun Professor of Education at Stanford University.

She told AASA conference attendees that the new Common Core assessments to be given in 45 states and the District of Columbia beginning in 2014 are more demanding than what students are used to, and they’ll require a commitment to intense professional development on the part of school systems to make sure teachers—and their students—are prepared.

Two multi-state consortia, the Partnership for the Assessment of College and Career Readiness (PARCC) and the Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium, are developing next-generation assessments aligned with the Common Core standards, and students will take the tests online. To illustrate the level of rigor involved, Darling-Hammond cited a sample question from the Smarter Balanced Assessment.

In the example, students are told to pretend they are the chief of staff for a congresswoman in their state. A power company is proposing to build a nuclear plant in the state, and the congresswoman wants to know how she should vote. Students are asked to search the web for information, find three arguments for and three against the use of nuclear power, evaluate these arguments, and then write a position statement either favoring or opposing the plan—using evidence to support their position.

Consider the skills that are being tested here: internet literacy (the ability to find information online and evaluate its credibility), writing, and critical thinking, for starters.

To prepare for the rigor of these exams, school districts must engage teachers in sustained, in-depth professional development, Darling-Hammond said. She said research suggests the right kind of professional development can increase student performance by up to 20 percent—but “drive-by, one-off workshops” have been shown to have no effect on achievement.

(Next page: What high-quality professional development looks like)

High-quality professional development should consist of at least 50 hours per year, and it should focus on teachers’ specific content areas, she said. It also should involve teachers in studying and collaborating on exemplary lesson plans, then implementing these plans—supported by coaching and modeling—and reflecting on their success.

To do professional development correctly, she said, schools must find the time for teachers to build lessons collaboratively. Teachers also should be looking at student work together, developing common rubrics, and scoring work together, so they have a common framework for what constitutes high-quality work.

“The more teachers collaborate, the more we see the work of teachers as collective, the greater student achievement will be,” she said.

But how teachers are evaluated can either facilitate or impede this process, Darling-Hammond cautioned: Evaluation systems that rank teachers according to value-added formulas—in other words, systems that “foster competition instead of collaboration”—will actually undermine success.

Teacher evaluation systems should take into account how much educators contribute to the school’s culture as a whole, and not just their own classrooms, she said—something that high-performing school systems (like Singapore) often do. They should include group goals as well as individual goals.

Value-added models are too volatile for district leaders to rely on as a means of assessing teachers, she said, citing examples of teachers who have been rated highly one year and poorly the next.

The number of students who live in poverty, speak English as a second language, have special needs, or even who excel can vary widely for teachers from year to year—and this can have a profound effect on how a teacher scores according to value-added rankings.

Follow Editor in Chief Dennis Pierce on Twitter at @eSN_Dennis.

For more coverage of AASA’s National Conference on Education, see:

‘Good to Great’ author: How to have great schools

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