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Possibilities in Connecting Teacher Evaluation to Student Achievement: Frequently Asked Questions

By Jess Hench & Xian Xu
Possibilities in Connecting Teacher Evaluation to Student Achievement: Frequently Asked Questions

The general public has become increasingly concerned with the performance of schools and teachers, especially as measured by student achievement growth measures. If used thoughtfully, validly, and as part of a bigger picture of school and teacher success, student growth measures can play a valuable role in documenting our school and classroom successes.
As government-supported public schools in many parts of the world have adopted various student growth components in school, teacher, and principal assessment models, it seems appropriate to continue exploring questions surrounding this phenomenon. Thus, we are addressing some of the more overt issues in this Frequently Asked Questions brief. (Note: We use “assessment” and “evaluation” interchangeably here.)
Question 1: So why are schools using student growth measures in teacher assessment models?
Rationale 1: Conventional teacher evaluation is not working.
Documenting and improving the quality of teaching should be the essence of teacher evaluation. Unfortunately, in traditional teacher evaluation systems, there is little connection between teachers’ evaluation results and the quality of their teaching (Ellet & Teddlie, 2003).
As such, evaluation can easily end up not promoting teacher reflection and professional growth, and not providing useful accountability evidence. Typically, principals observe a limited amount of teaching, so there isn’t much evidence to build on for traditional teacher assessment. Additionally, evaluation rarely focuses on the results of teaching – student learning (Marshall, 2005). Studies have shown that typical teacher evaluation is deemed by teachers and principals as having little value, and principals’ ratings of teachers are generally uncorrelated with student achievement (Gallagher, 2004).
Rationale 2: Teacher effectiveness varies among teachers, and that variability needs to be identified in teacher assessment.
Traditional teacher evaluation in the form of a fleeting classroom visit by an administrator usually does not focus on the product of teacher instruction. Observations are often irrelevant and of low reliability and validity (Milanowski, 2004), and teachers are rarely rated as ineffective, even when some teachers clearly are ineffective. Moreover, research indicates that there is considerable variability across teachers in terms of their effectiveness in improving student achievement. For instance:
• Differences in student achievement in math and reading for effective and less effective teachers was more than 30 percentile points in a single year (Stronge et al., 2011).
• A 75th percentile teacher can achieve in 3/4 of a year what a 25th percentile teacher can achieve in a full year. A teacher at the 90th percentile can achieve in 1/2 a year what a teacher at the 10th percentile can achieve in a full year (Leigh 2010).
Despite real and obvious differences in teaching practices and teaching results, the effectiveness of a teacher is not accurately measured in many schools or school systems. Too frequently, traditional teacher evaluation systems do not allow for differentiation; teachers are judged as either satisfactory or unsatisfactory, resulting in most teachers being rated as top performers. One study found that although a significant number of students were failing, only 1% of the teachers were rated below average (Weisberg 2009). In another instance, only 1.8% of a large district’s 89,000 teachers were rated unsatisfactory (Varlas 2009). This is a disservice, as there is no system in place to retain these outstanding teachers, and “middle of the spectrum” teachers are not given opportunities to improve (Weisberg 2009).
Question 2: What are some of the possibilities in linking teacher evaluation to student performance?
Incorporating student growth measures can more fairly differentiate the assessment of teachers’ effectiveness. It also can hold administrators accountable for using evaluation systems properly and provide specific professional development feedback to support and improve teacher performance. Furthermore, student achievement data are versatile in serving different educational purposes:
• Student achievement can be used to assess performance at different levels: schools, teachers, programs, or subjects. Measures at the group and school levels are less threatening to individual teachers and could encourage collaboration among teachers.
• When used fairly and as one factor in a multi-data source design, value-added assessments can provide important information for summative judgments about the effectiveness of school systems, schools, and teachers. Student achievement test results can also estimate teacher effectiveness in specific subjects and even in specific domains of a subject to inform professional development (Harris 2010).
Many important questions remain unanswered regarding how to incorporate student achievement data into teacher evaluation. However, what we have seen in study after study is that conventional teacher evaluation models and practices are not working as advertised.

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