By Cort Olsen
Capital News Service
RICHMOND – A Loudoun County parent, Brian Davison, recently sued state officials over whether student testing data used in teacher evaluations should be released to parents.
The data show how much each teacher’s students improve from one year to the next on Virginia’s Standard of Learning tests, commonly called SOLs. The SOLs cover English, math and other subjects.
Currently, the student testing data have been used only by the Virginia Department of Education to determine the effectiveness of teachers in the state’s public schools.
Should Davison win his case, it could be possible to see how much each teacher’s students grew academically according to SOL scores. Davison says this would show how much “value added” can be attributed to individual teachers.
Richmond Circuit Court Judge Melvin Hughes ruled in January that the student testing data should be open to parents and the public. However, the Virginia Education Association is seeking to appeal the decision, saying that the release of data so closely tied to teacher evaluations is a violation of privacy.
Hughes barred the VEA from the case between Davison and the Virginia Board of Education, saying the group did not have legal standing to be a party in the lawsuit. But this has not stopped VEA director John O’Neal from addressing the issue.
O’Neal said the data that parents like Davison want released is student growth percentiles.
“SGP is a measure the Virginia Board of Education creates to show how much growth on a standardized test that some students make between one grade and the next,” O’Neal said. “That is a piece that we feel is a part of the teacher’s personnel record and therefore should not be released publicly.
O’Neal and other VEA representatives said the SGP can be misleading and unreliable as an indicator of teacher quality and performance. Moreover, the data apply only to certain teachers.
“The SGP’s are developed using tests of reading and math for students in grades 4 through 9,” O’Neal said. “That’s why only some teachers are affected and not others.”
On March 16, Hughes ruled that the VEA would not be permitted to intervene in the case between Davison and the Loudoun County School Board.
Many teachers share the VEA’s concerns about releasing the SGP data.
Kelly Cresswell, who teaches theater at Riverbend High School in Fredericksburg, said release of the data associated with her job evaluation might prompt her to resign.
“Teacher evaluations are a tool to improve teaching,” Cresswell said. “They are sometimes used to get rid of bad teachers, but even those teachers should first have a chance to improve and try to meet a standard.”
Cresswell compared teacher evaluations to the job evaluations of military personnel: “They are defending my country, and my tax money pays for their service. If all government employees’ evaluations are made public, then make mine. Otherwise, this should remain private for me.”
School administrators agree with teachers on the issue.
Dianne Holmes, the principal of Riverview Elementary School, also was on the Teacher Evaluation Committee for Spotsylvania County Public Schools. Holmes said people misunderstand the purpose of teacher evaluations.
“I don’t think it is imperative for the parents to be aware of the teacher’s growth and performance as much as their child’s growth and performance,” Holmes said. “If the students are not showing growth, then there could be an issue, and that is up to the teacher’s supervisor to provide the needed support.”
Holmes said parents already have access to a teacher’s credentials that can be accessed through the Virginia Department of Education website.
Dr. Steven Staples, who oversees the department as Virginia’s superintendent of public instruction, said SGP data has already been released to the public with no student or teacher identifiers, as required by the federal law called No Child Left Behind.
“The court decision indicated that individual SGP data could be released if student identifiers were redacted,” Staples said. “A recent challenge has halted further compliance with the order until a decision is made regarding individual identifiers for teachers.”
Other states like California have released SGP data for individual teachers. The Los Angeles Times sued the Los Angeles Unified School District to obtain the data and posted it on its website in August 2010. The online database listed teachers by name and school and, using SGP data, rated teachers from “least effective” to “most effective.”
For instance, the database put Rigoberto Ruelas, a fifth-grade teacher at Miramonte Elementary in Los Angeles, in the “less effective than average” category. Friends say Ruelas was crushed by public rating. A month later, at age 39, he committed suicide.