AUGUSTA — Maine should change its teacher evaluation rules so teachers are judged at least partly by how their students do on the state’s annual assessment tests, the head of the state teachers union told lawmakers Thursday.

That would be a change from current law, which simply says that all Maine teachers must be evaluated based on student scores, leaving it up to the local schools to determine which student scores to use. But that language has run afoul of federal requirements, according to state education officials who spoke Thursday in support of L.D. 692, a bill from Gov. Paul LePage.

Without the change, Maine could lose its waiver on some requirements of No Child Left Behind, more formally known as the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, or ESEA.

The Maine Department of Education “has carefully considered the U.S. Department of Education concerns and is purposely proposing revisions that we judge will meet but not exceed the U.S. DOE’s threshold needed for approval,” Anita Bernhart, the Maine DOE director of standards and instruction, told lawmakers on the Education Committee at a public hearing on the bill Thursday.

The head of the Maine teachers union agreed that student assessment scores should be used as part of teacher evaluations, despite generally opposing the use of “high stakes” testing.

Standardized tests, some educators argue, are an indicator more of the socio-economic status of a school district than how well teachers are teaching students.

“MEA knows there is one change that is now required by the U.S. DOE to maintain an ESEA waiver. That change is a very difficult one for MEA to swallow,” Maine Education Association President Lois Kilby-Chesley told the committee. “However, MEA cannot be the blocker to Maine’s ESEA waiver.”

The Obama administration announced in 2011 it would give No Child Left Behind waivers to states that adopted certain education standards, such as teacher evaluations tied to student test scores. In exchange, states would get flexibility in dealing with some of the law’s core tenets, such as that 100 percent of students be proficient in mathematics and reading by 2014.

Several states either never applied for the waivers or have lost their waivers because of the very issue Maine is facing.

Maine got its waiver in 2013, followoing more than 40 other states, after promising to adopt certain education standards, such as teacher evaluations tied to student test scores.

OTHER MODELS POSSIBLE

More than a dozen people, mostly teachers and some students, spoke out against the governor’s bill Thursday, saying they did not think the Smarter Balanced test was a good test and objecting to the students’ performance being used to evaluate teachers.

Kilby-Chesley said the MEA opposed other parts of the governor’s bill, such as eliminating language from current law that says teachers can’t be evaluated 100 percent by any one measure, but must be evaluated on multiple measures.

Some teachers speaking in opposition to the bill Thursday said they thought that change might open the door to teachers being evaluated 100 percent on student scores on the state assessment tests, known as the Smarter Balanced tests.

The original language in a teacher evaluation bill put forward by the LePage administration last session sought to have at least 20 percent of a teacher’s evaluation based on students’ state assessment results, but that requirement was eliminated during the legislative process.

Conservative lawmakers have pushed for teacher evaluations tied to student scores, a move now widely accepted by educators as well. But teacher unions have opposed tying evaluations to specific state assessment or standardized tests, saying there are many other models that could be used, from having an individual teacher evaluated on a review of the body of her students work to having an entire grade or schools scores be averaged to a single score that is then used as the score for all teachers in that grade or school.

Bernhardt told committee members all the changes in the proposed bill reflected concerns from the U.S. DOE and all were needed in order to avoid losing the waiver.

Kilby-Chesley and Sen. Rebecca Millett, D-Cape Elizabeth, who were both on the same conference calls with the federal officials, said that was not their interpretation of what the federal agency expected. Both said their understanding was that the only urgent issue, due to the U.S. DOE by March 31, was that the state assessments must be one component of teacher evaluations. Other issues, were less pressing, they said, and could be addressed in the upcoming months, giving the state time to consider how to make those changes.

Committee Chairman Sen. Brian Langley, R-Ellsworth, who was also on the call, told Millett that he didn’t agree with her characterization of the call and that it was something the committee could discuss in an upcoming work session on the bill.

“It’s just a difference in perception,” Kilby-Chesley said after the hearing.

She also asked whether it would be so bad to lose the waiver, telling the committee that other states without waivers have not reported big problems.

Maine DOE officials said that if the state loses the waiver, every Maine school being labeled as failing because students are not at 100 percent proficiency — a standard experts agree is unattainable — must set aside 20 percent of its Title I funds for supplemental education services.

Maine gets about $50 million in Title I funds for schools that have a certain number of students from low-income backgrounds.

SOME STATES TAKE PENALTY

Several states don’t have a waiver, accepting the penalty from the federal government. Among them are Vermont, Washington, North Dakota, Utah and California.

“We’ve been very happy (without a waiver), and the price you pay is relatively small,” Richard Zeiger, the chief deputy superintendent in California, told Education Week in an interview this week. He said California applied for a waiver and was rejected because of the same conflict about teacher evaluations facing Maine.

“We’ve spent much less time looking over our shoulder and looking at what federal government is doing. It enabled us to strike our own pathway,” Zeiger said.

Several teachers at the hearing Thursday also objected to the other proposed changes, saying they undermined local efforts to set up their own teacher evaluation standards.

“If the changes proposed in (the governor’s bill) are passed unchanged, much of the hard work in Augusta will have to be re-done,” said Jeff DeJohgh, a science teacher at the city’s Cony High School who also serves on the committee to set that school’s teacher evaluation standards. He said their group is already piloting their own system and “the proposed changes … go way too far in trying to address the U.S. DOE’s concern for Maine to maintain the ESEA waiver.”


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