As state officials prepare to roll out a new teacher evaluation that is partially tied to student test scores, a leading advocate wants them to “think long and hard” to avoid adopting a process that inadvertently harms special education students.

Access Living’s Rod Estvan cautions that one of two scenarios could emerge if officials rush too quickly with the new evaluations: The test scores of special education students could be discounted, which would be bad news because teachers would not be held responsible for teaching them. Or, the test scores could be factored into the equation just like the scores of students who are in regular education—another bad deal, since it could lead to teachers maneuvering to keep test scores up by keeping special education students out of their classes.

 “This is a huge, complex issue and we don’t know what to do with it,” Estvan says.

Among the recommendations, outlined by Access Living’s Rod Estvan in a paper released Wednesday, are:

  • A revised time frame for implementing the new evaluation as it pertains to special education students, to give educators more time to consider the implications.
  • A framework for principal observation that is unique to special education students.
  • Allowing school districts to let students’ achievement growth be hashed out in meeting where Individualized Education Plans are developed, so that teachers and parents could look at a student’s educational history and decide what is realistic and acceptable.  

Under the state’s new teacher evaluation law, called the Performance Evaluation Reform Act, part of a teacher’s evaluation must be tied to test score growth. Evaluations will also be partially tied to principal observation.

Race To The Top pressure

When PERA was passed in January of 2010, Estvan says he didn’t fully digest the implications for special education students. With pressure to make sure that Illinois was positioned to win a federal Race to the Top grant, lawmakers, advocates and unions quickly agreed on the bill, since one criteria for the competitive grants was a plan to link teacher evaluations to student test scores.  

Though Illinois didn’t win a Race To The Top grant, the law still applies. CPS, where about 12 percent of students are in special education, must implement the new evaluations in 300 schools by the 2012 school year and the other half by 2013. Most of the rest of the state has until 2016.

On Friday, the Illinois Performance Advisory Council will approve draft recommendations to be passed on to the Illinois State Board of Education. Council member Larry Stanton says that, except at a high level, the recommendations do not address the issue of how special education students should be approached.

The PEAC recommendations leave those questions to yet-to-be-formed joint committees.

“It is going to require some special thinking,” says Stanton, former executive director of the Consortium for Educational Change, an advocacy organization affiliated with the Illinois Education Association.

But Stanton says the recommendations do allow school districts some flexibility. For example, one of three types of tests to be used measures growth unique to a class curriculum and is to be determined by the teacher and administrator.

Estvan says he is concerned that the timeline doesn’t leave much chance for CPS and other districts to fully consider how subgroups, such as special education and bilingual students, should be incorporated into the teacher evaluation system. At least initially, CPS will use an already-developed ISAT-based value-added formula.  But at the same time, it is in the midst of preparing to give a new test based on the Common Core Standards, which are seen to be more rigorous than state standards.

It is expected that CPS will initially see a drop in test scores when the new Common Core test comes online. The situation could be even worse for special education students, who are already far below students in regular education on the ISAT and the Prairie State.

Still, Estvan says it is imperative that teachers be expected to push special education students to achieve. He notes that under the current system, an increasing number of special education students are given an alternative, easier assessment that’s supposed to be reserved for students with the most severe disabilities.

Jennifer Ridder, a DePaul master’s student who helped research the Access Living paper, says she was surprised to find how little research has been done on special education students and teacher evaluations based on student test score growth.

“Given the push to value-added, school districts are quickly leaping into it without taking time to look and see where they might land,” she said.

However, Ridder found two examples that the state of Illinois and CPS might look at. In Ohio, a value-added model makes a prediction of how each student should progress, looking at a variety of measures such as a student’s historical academic and test performance record. Also, in Washoe County, Nevada, school district officials have developed a specific principal evaluation framework for special education teachers.   

Sarah is the deputy editor of Catalyst Chicago.

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