Lawmakers Halt High Stakes Testing, Alter Teacher Evaluations

Jun 23, 2014

In a move that seemed almost unthinkable before a change in leadership at the House of Representatives, Rhode Island lawmakers have suspended the use of standardized test scores as part of a high school diploma until at least 2017. Lawmakers have also approved legislation that limits the frequency of teacher evaluations for most teachers.

The teacher evaluation bill, in its final form, requires highly rated teachers to undergo in-depth evaluations just once every two to three years. The original bill said every four years for teachers ranked as "highly effective," but lawmakers agreed to a compromise.

The bill also allows school committees to negotiate with local unions for more frequent evaluations and preserves the right of principals to conduct classroom observations, according to the Rhode Island Association of School Committees, which fought for the compromise.

The moratorium on linking test scores to a high diploma seems like a major defeat for a policy championed by Rhode Island's Education Commissioner Deborah Gist. Many teachers and principals say students did not take annual testing seriously until their scores had some consequences. Teachers are scheduled to start having student test scores count towards their evaluations next year.

But critics of so-called high stakes testing say it is unfair to students of color, low income students and students with disabilities, who score below average at higher rates than their peers. The American Civil Liberties Union chapter in Rhode Island and a student group in Providence have advocated strongly against the testing policy, which students claim has led to an inordinate amount of classroom time focused on testing.

In other education news, the notice date for teacher layoffs has been moved back from March 1st to June 1st, a change that school officials have long wanted. The March 1st deadline required districts to send pink slips to many of their junior teachers because they were still uncertain about their budget allocations and needed to warn teachers if layoffs might be necessary. Critics said the annual pink slips left teachers in a state of uncertainty about their future, especially newer teachers.

Lawmakers have also approved a bill to create a new board for career and technical education and a non profit group charged with getting more partnerships and funding for vocational education from the business community.

No action was taken on bills that would have delayed the use of new standardized testing linked to the Common Core state standards and created a commission to study the Common Core.