February 20, 2014

Who has the best teachers? New NC rankings give hints

More than three-quarters of teachers in North Carolina and Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools met state goals for student gains on test scores, though CMS fell slightly under the state average on new teacher effectiveness ratings.

More than three-quarters of teachers in North Carolina and Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools met state goals for student gains on test scores, though CMS fell slightly under the state average on new teacher effectiveness ratings.

Teachers in Wake, Union and Cabarrus counties earned significantly higher ratings. In Union, for instance, 89 percent of teachers met the goals and 35 percent got the top rating.

Statewide, 79 percent met the goal and 23 percent earned a top rating, based on results of 2012-13 exams. In CMS, 77 percent met the goal and 21 percent hit the top mark.

“We have fabulous teachers,” said Union Superintendent Mary Ellis. She said faculty did intensive preparation for new Common Core academic standards and the tougher state tests that debuted last year.

The ratings are part of a national quest to nail down the most elusive and essential element of education: good teaching. North Carolina has invested millions of dollars and countless hours.

Value-added ratings use complex formulas to project how well students should do on exams, based on past scores and factors that could impede or boost performance. Teachers are rated on whether their students do better or worse than expected.

“I think teachers are going to be upset and confused, because it is a hard thing to understand,” said Charles Smith, a CMS high school teacher who heads the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Association of Educators.

Student pass rates, which are better known and simpler, often reflect the demographics of a district or school. Across the country, white, Asian and middle-class students score higher on average than African-American, Hispanic and low-income classmates.

In theory, value-added ratings strip out such variables and give a true picture of each teacher’s contribution to student success. Teachers who make big gains with disadvantaged kids score high, even if many students fall short of grade level. Teachers of gifted and high-performing students who easily pass exams are marked down if those students don’t log enough progress.

Valuable or wasteful?

In practice, the rating system is controversial. Driven partly by promises made to earn a $400 million federal Race to the Top grant, North Carolina launched dozens of new exams last year so scores could be used for teacher evaluations. In coming years, consistently low ratings will lead to teacher dismissal.

“I think it’s very valuable,” said Bill Anderson, executive director of the nonprofit advocacy group MeckEd. “There’s clearly some lessons to be learned.”

Pamela Grundy of Mecklenburg ACTS, a group that has long protested overuse of standardized testing, called the new ratings “a complete waste of money that could be used for something that actually helps students learn.”

Grundy said the school breakdowns can be misleading, especially in elementary schools, where a relatively small number of teachers gives the tests that generate ratings. For instance, 100 percent of the teachers at Shamrock Gardens Elementary, where her son went to school, met the target, but that’s based on five teachers.

Several Charlotte-area charter schools, including Community School of Davidson, Carolina International School and Crossroads High, had no value-added ratings listed, apparently because fewer than five teachers had scores to be tallied.

The Observer compiled a composite from 14 Charlotte-area charter schools, with a total of 226 rated teachers. Eighty-one percent of the charter teachers met the target, and 29 percent hit the top level, slightly topping state and CMS averages.

Sorting it out

The ratings based on student test scores are one of six standards used in North Carolina teacher evaluations.

The other five, which include content knowledge and leadership, are based on subjective evaluations, with ratings given on a five-point scale. At least 90 percent of all teachers statewide and in CMS rated proficient or higher on those items.

The school and district reports include breakdowns for all standards (individual ratings are not released). CMS officials say they’re looking at all the data for 160 schools and working with principals to identify areas that need work.

For instance, a school where teachers rate low on content knowledge might bring in people to help make sure teachers understand how to cover the required material, said Human Resources chief Terri Cockerham. Teachers with higher ratings could be identified as leaders to help their colleagues.

CMS leaders say they’re still exploring such questions as what school characteristics are associated with the strongest student gains.

The Observer pulled data on 23 CMS high schools. Ardrey Kell High, in the county’s southern tip, led by a large margin, with 92 percent meeting the effectiveness standard and 43 percent exceeding it.

Teachers at West Charlotte High, a perennially low-scoring school that has been the focus of intensive efforts to boost teacher performance, outranked those at many high schools with higher pass rates and lower poverty levels. Two-thirds of West Charlotte’s teachers met the standard, with 16 percent exceeding it.

However, most high schools fell below the district average for all schools. At four – Harding, Vance, Hopewell and Olympic International Business – more than half the teachers who gave state exams failed to produce the expected gains.

The formula for projecting high school expectations is especially complex, because students stop taking the reading, math and science exams given in grades three to eight and start taking tests at the end of specific courses. Last year the state introduced new final exams. In CMS, scores weren’t counted toward students’ grades because the tests were new and unproven, but they were used for teachers’ ratings.

“Students knew they didn’t count so a lot of them didn’t take it seriously,” Smith said.

CMS spokeswoman Kathryn Block said most of the new exams were concentrated in high schools, and teachers were required to grade each other’s students on open-ended questions.

“The impact of this new administration and variability in scoring methods could certainly show up in high school educators’ (value-added) ratings,” she said.

Jennifer Preston, who works on teacher effectiveness for the N.C. Department of Public Instruction, said ratings varied by subject but the statewide numbers don’t show unusually low ratings for high school teachers.

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