Fierce Resistance to Race to the Top Draft Guidelines Wins Modest Changes

K-12 Testing

FairTest Examiner, November 2009

In response to a firestorm of criticism focused on the use of student test scores to evaluate individual teachers, the U.S. Department of Education (DOE) has made modest changes to its guidelines for states to access federal "Race to the Top" (RTTT) funds. The final "requirements" may reduce the emphasis on test scores in teacher evaluation systems, but how much remains uncertain. FairTest, many major education groups, and the National Research Council's Board on Testing and Assessment (BOTA) argued that key RTTT requirements will intensify No Child Left Behind’s worst aspects. However, an opening remains for states to use these funds to significantly improve their assessment systems.


FairTest and BOTA were joined by the Forum on Educational Accountability, National Education Association, American Federation of Teachers, and Forum on Education and Democracy, among many other national and state education organizations, in sharply criticizing the draft "requirements." They argued the proposals were unfair to educators, would lead to even more teaching to the test, would damage student learning, were not based on research, and relied too heavily on standardized tests.


The final requirements say that a state must have no laws or rules preventing individual student test scores from being linked to individual teachers. They give substantial weight to states designing and using new evaluation systems for hiring, paying, firing and granting tenure to teachers and principals. They expect student test score growth to be a "significant factor" in the evaluations, but the meaning of "significant" remains unclear.


The Department included use of "growth" or "value added" models (VAM) despite a growing consensus in the research community holding that VAM should not be used for high-stakes decisions because current versions rely on one test and are fraught with technical problems. BOTA supported that conclusion and emphasized that high-stakes decisions should not be based on single tests.


The final requirements construct a system in which states can earn a maximum of 500 points, with the highest-scoring applicants winning a grant. In addition to designing new evaluation procedures, states will be awarded points for participating in and then adopting the "common core" standards, and for joining consortia of states to develop new assessments based on the standards.


Many states do not have VAM systems in place, the new tests will not be ready for years, and many state evaluation systems will also take substantial time to construct. Thus, by the time states can actually implement many of the RTTT components, the money will be spent and the RTTT clock expired. States will then have to decide how to continue these initiatives.


The requirements say that state proposals must include participation from education organizations. The Montana Teachers Association declared that if the draft requirements did not change, the state should not apply. Nevada indicated it does not plan to participate. Schools chief Keith Rheault equated USED's plan to a credit card with a "35% interest rate" offered to people "desperate for money."


However, other state education groups have said their states should apply. Facing fiscal crises and hoping to win a share of the $4.3 billion pot, some states, have changed their laws. Others, including California and Massachusetts, are moving quickly to do so, but there remains a chance to block harmful changes.


If states do apply, the details of their plans will matter a great deal. In their comments, many organizations proposed alternative ways the Department could use the funds to strengthen teaching and assessment. States can incorporate many of these positive ideas in their applications. In the end, only about 15 states are likely to receive funds. There are two application periods, January and June of 2010.