Louisiana public schools are starting the 2017-18 academic year anew, and students will not be the only ones facing a new challenge.
After a four-year moratorium, around 15,000 of the state's roughly 50,000 teachers will again have their annual job reviews linked to how students fare on key tests.
The most controversial part of the evaluations has been sidelined since the 2012-13 school year during the state's move to tougher academic standards, including Common Core.
The idea was that, since students faced unfamiliar and more rigorous exams, it was unfair to tie their performance to a teacher's job status. Now that the timeout is over, the soon-to-be revived test score component is just as controversial as ever.
Backers call the evaluations a way to help ensure quality teachers, and that repeated delays in using test score data were becoming a problem.
"Evaluations are a critical part of overall accountability," said Brigitte Nieland, who follows public school issues for the Louisiana Association of Business and Industry.
However, the sponsor of the 2010 state law that requires the job checks has questions about connecting a teacher's annual job review to how students do in the classroom.
"We did it hoping it was going to work, but I am still not convinced it works," said state Rep. Frank Hoffmann, R-West Monroe and a veteran educator. "It doesn't do any good to say a teacher is good or bad if they are not good or bad."
Hoffmann's bill was part of a wave of public school changes enacted under former Gov. Bobby Jindal.
The idea is to measure the impact a teacher has on student learning by comparing new test scores to previous ones, and whether students met expected gains.
The review is called the Value Added Model, or VAM, and is used in various forms in other states, not just Louisiana. It typically applies to math, English, science and social studies teachers.
Others, like art and music teachers, are subject to job reviews split between classroom observations and student learning targets – academic goals agreed to in advance by teachers and principals.
Under the original plan, half of other teachers reviews would be linked to how students perform on exams and half on classroom observations. That formula changed last year, when test results were still being used only as advisory material in rating teachers. The new rules require that 35 percent of a teacher's rating comes from exam scores, 15 percent from learning targets and 50 percent from traditional observations.
They were established by groups that rarely agree on the issue, including LABI, the Louisiana Federation of Teachers, the Louisiana Association of Educators, the Louisiana School Boards Association, the Council for a Better Louisiana Louisiana, superintendents and Gov. John Bel Edwards.
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Despite the compromise, critics say the reviews remain flawed.
"I think it will be controversial," LAE President Debbie Meaux said.
Meaux said that, in some cases, teachers land top ratings from principals and low marks from the VAM portion of the evaluation.
"There will be teachers who get caught with a negative or a lower score due to the value added data," she said. "That is going to be controversial."
The annual snapshots have only been done in earnest one time – 2013. Nearly one in three teachers got the top rating then and 4 percent were listed as ineffective.
The evaluations are important because they can keep teachers from earning job security – called tenure – or even losing tenure they already have.
Scott Richard, executive director of the LSBA, said the reviews put teachers in different categories – those whose jobs are and are not linked to test results. "The whole goal of a school is you have everybody working as a team," Richard said.
In an email, Richard said even after seven years the state Department of Education "is unable to truly explain or provide the actual mathematical calculation or formula" used to link test scores with teacher ratings.
"This obviously lends to the distrust of the entire initiative among the education community," he said.
A spokeswoman for the state Department of Education said the VAM formula has been on the agency's website, and updated annually, since it began in 2012.
The test score portion of teacher evaluations is supposed to get a checkup of its own.
Under legislation approved earlier this year – House Resolution 158 – the state's top school board is supposed to gauge the effectiveness of linking test scores to teacher ratings. BESE officials are to file a report with the Legislature by March 1.
The study was a fallback when a bill by the governor, and sponsored by Hoffmann, would have allowed school officials to use test data as they chose on teacher evaluations failed to gain traction in the Legislature.
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Even critics of VAM said Edwards' proposal would have caused huge variance in standards for how teachers are rated from district to district.
LFT President Larry Carter said many teachers view the job reviews as unfair, in part because student attendance, reading levels and other factors beyond a teacher's control play a role in test results.
State Superintendent of Education John White said he respected the 2016 compromise that revamped the formula.
White said principals should be strongly accountable for teaching in their schools and be allowed to evaluate "as they see fit."
Cade Brumley, who leads the Louisiana Association of School Superintendents, said students deserve one year of academic growth from one year of instruction.
"We need to be cautious in our approach, however, to ensure any model for measuring student growth is valid, reliable and accounts for extraneous variables, and is clearly defined for all parties involved inclusive of the classroom teacher," Brumley said in an email.
Meaux said teachers struggle to touch on all the material that will appear on the test, with those results helping to decide their job status.
"Every teacher tries to cover everything but it is almost impossible to do," she said.