Teacher evaluation in PreK: Using student data is risky

According to a new report, many states will soon measure student learning in the “untested grades,” meaning teacher evaluation will use data from students in prekindergarten through third grade. The report explores the risks associated with this and its potential impact on teachers?

The brief, “An Ocean of Unknowns: Risks and Opportunities in Using Student Achievement Data to Evaluate PreK-3rd Grade Teachers,” funded through grants from the Foundation for Child Development and the W. Clement and Jessie V. Stone Foundation, reports that as of 2012, 20 states and Washington, D.C. require evidence of student learning to play a role in evaluating teacher performance. As a result, better information on student learning is in high demand, and no grade level is immune.

Historically, most states have required standardized testing only in grades three through eight. But now those 21, with likely more to follow, must devise comparable ways to measure student learning in the “untested grades,” as well, including preK, kindergarten, and grades one and two. And even with testing in grade three, a lack of baseline data has implications for those teachers, too.

(Next page: Common Core complications)

“Determining growth measures for these grades is among the most complex pieces of teacher evaluation reform,” said Laura Bornfreund, senior policy analyst for New America’s Early Education Initiative, and author of the report. “In this early stage of life, children’s developmental growth is directly linked to their academic growth. So measures of student learning should account for how young children actually learn and measure more than just reading and mathematics if we are to obtain an accurate picture of a teacher’s impact on her young students’ learning.”

However, the report also notes that states and districts often don’t have many “proven practices” when it comes to using data for teacher evaluations.

Teacher evaluation policy changes since 2009. [Yellow: Yes; Purple: No]
Complicating matters is the implementation of Common Core State Standards (CCSS), which do not include formal assessments in language arts and mathematics for PreK through second grade.

The Partnership for Assessments of Readiness for College and Careers (PARCC), does, however, plan to create formative assessments for teachers to use in kindergarten through second grade.

In a recent speech, American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten called for a moratorium on the high-stakes implications of Common Core testing until the standards have been properly implemented.

In creating the report, Bornfreund hopes to provide a snapshot of how teacher evaluation systems use student achievement data, and also hopes to illuminate the issues causing states and school districts the most struggles.

Most states are using one or a combination of three approaches, she explained: student learning objectives (SLOs), shared assessments, and shared attribution. The Early Education Initiative at the New America Foundation examined these approaches in five states (Colorado, Delaware, Florida, Rhode Island, and Tennessee) and three school districts (Austin, Texas; Hillsborough County, Fla.; and Washington, D.C.). Each of the approaches carries its own risks and opportunities.

The risks and opportunities of these three approaches are found in the report.

(Next page: 3 recommendations)


Based on analysis of research and states’ teacher evaluation plans, the Early Education Initiative at the New America Foundation recommends:

1. Account for specific attributes of PreK-3rd teachers—When setting policies related to the untested grades and subjects, treat PreK-3rd teachers as a distinct group; measures used to determine student growth and teacher effectiveness should measure not just reading and math, but other skills, such as executive-functioning skills; and include teacher input and current research when discussing the creation of these new evaluations.

2. Pilot and evaluate—Before full implementation, states and school districts should pilot student learning measures, coordinating a staged implementation of the teacher evaluation system to address issues that arise.

3. Do not use “shared attribution” measures from later grades as the sole measure of student growth to evaluate early grade teachers—Data on students that a teacher has either never taught or taught years before are not reflective of that teacher’s talents or deficiencies. Neither is the information derived from these data of much help when it comes to informing the teacher’s own instruction, since assessments may be given after he or she has a certain group of students.

(Next page: 9 key considerations)


As states and school districts continue to develop, implement, and refine the student growth measures of their teacher evaluation systems, there are various issues to address, according to the report:

1. Assessments are designed to be used in specific ways and do not always lend themselves well to other purposes.

2. States will need to decide whether there should be one statewide system or many different district-level systems, and be prepared to provide technical assistance to discover what measures are appropriate for young children, what skills should be measured, and how to measure them in accordance with developmentally appropriate guidelines.

3. While state and district officials may focus on improving numeracy and literacy in PreK-3rd, they should be concerned with whether students are developing crucial skills in the other domains of learning.

4. Engaging schools of education in conversations about teacher evaluation is important, so prospective teachers and principals can gain expertise in assessment models.

5. Creating a system in which teachers set goals and design measures to gauge student growth when their compensation or jobs depend on the results is rife with problems, as with SLOs.

6. Different delivery models of pre-K and kindergarten make it difficult to tie student growth to individual teachers in the earliest grades.

7. States should align their teacher evaluation systems with the Common Core State Standards before implementing the new assessments in the 2014-15 school year.

8. In evaluations of PreK-3rd grade teachers, states and districts should consider whether teachers administered student assessments appropriately and what they did with the data.

9. Since there is limited research on the approaches discussed in this paper, states and school districts should proceed cautiously in selecting assessments for measuring student learning in the early grades.

For more detailed information and case studies, read the report.

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