New Jersey school districts are scrambling to develop new teacher evaluation systems that comply with a state law signed last month that aims to make teacher tenure harder to get and easier to lose. The deadline for the new assessment systems to go into effect is the start of the 2013-2014 school year, and the toughest problem facing district administrators will be how much of a role standardized test results, or similar objective student achievement metrics, will play in the final determination of teacher quality.
Some have said that the tight deadline makes it harder on the districts to make a make a measured determination, and will force some into committing to a formula before they can be sure it is appropriate. But not everyone left this decision until they were put under the gun by the legislation. Some, like the Hunterdon County's Alexandria Township school district, have been preparing for this moment for the past three years.
According to Matthew Jennings, Alexandria's superintendent, the district already has three years' worth of data on which they can base their decision as to how much standardized exams actually communicate teacher effectiveness. Alexandria students are tested three times a year in every subject covered between kindergarten and 8th grade.
He said those tests have taken years to develop. And if the district had not already done them, this year would be much more stressful. "I certainly would be tempted to look at some of the shortcuts that exist in order to be compliant," Jennings said.
Only about a third of the state's 600 districts have taken similar steps as Alexandria, and already have passable testing frameworks in place. For the rest, the next year will prove to be quite hectic.
"It's an aggressive agenda if you don't have anything in place now," said Brian Zychowski, the schools superintendent in North Brunswick and the chairman of a state task force on teacher evaluations. His district has been using its own tests for more than a half-dozen years. Schools without such systems, he said, will end up buying commercially available ones to meet deadlines. "They'll be receiving — not being part of the conversation, not trying to shape it."
Robert Goldschmidt, who heads up the school district in the Gloucester County's Washington Township, isn't concerned. He said that he doesn't feel the need to develop their own assessment system and will instead rely on the model that has been approved by the state's Board of Education. He calls other districts' attempts to develop an assessment system in-house as "reinventing the wheel."
The new law, signed by New Jersey Governor Chris Christie last month, will have teacher evaluations play a significant role in tenure decisions. Any teacher who doesn't attain a minimum grade will not qualify for tenure, while a succession of bad grades will allow the district to fire even a tenured instructor.