Student Growth Objectives Challenged as a Reliable Measure of Student (and Teacher) Evaluation
Peggy McGlone | The Star-Ledger
What’s old is new again.
That’s the line state and local education officials are using for the Student Growth Objectives, or SGOs, a key tool used in the new teacher evaluation process.
Good teachers have been using these tools for decades to chart a course for the new school year, state officials say. Teachers routinely ask themselves two basic questions: What do my students need to learn, and how will I know they learned it? A strong SGO merely articulates these questions — and answers — in a measurable way.
"This is not a new process," assistant education commissioner Peter Shulman told members of the state Board of Education last week. "It enhances teachers’ abilities to track students, to inform instruction."
But critics say SGOs are time-consuming and pseudo-scientific, and — more importantly — are unproven measures of teacher effectiveness.
"Of course teachers monitor student progress," said music teacher and researcher Mark Weber. "But what’s never happened before is the state coming into a school and saying you must make (part) of your evaluation be based on two arbitrary measures of growth that have never been shown to be valid or reliable."
SGOs are one of three measures used to judge teacher effectiveness as part of the teacher tenure reform law that went into effect last year. All teachers are evaluated on classroom observation and their scores in one or two SGOs. In addition, the evaluations of about 20 percent of educators — those who teach math and language arts in third through eighth grades — include student test scores.
Though the use of test data has attracted more attention, the SGOs are more universal, and just as controversial. Proponents argue that ambitious goals are integral to strong teaching. Tracking data from these goals will help to improve both teacher practice and student achievement.
But critics say turning subjective targets into iron-clad data points is silly and unreliable.
"They are asking teachers to engage in statistical self-study without the training required in producing and reading statistics," said Daniel Katz, professor of education at Seton Hall University in South Orange.
HOW IT WORKS
Student Growth Objectives are long-term academic goals that measure what a student has learned between two points in time, according to a Department of Education guidebook. The goals must be ambitious and achievable and aligned to the state’s curriculum standards. Every teacher must create one or two SGOs that are approved by their supervisors. At the end of the year, they are scored from 1 to 4, with 4 being exceptional.
At a presentation to the state Board of Education last week, the state’s director of evaluation Tim Matheney used hypothetical physics teacher Isaac Newton’s SGO to explain the process. Newton used the first two months of the school year to evaluate his ninth-grade students, and then grouped them in three categories and established target scores for the third quarter test. Newton predicted the top group would score 90 percent on the test, the middle group 80 percent and the lower group 70 percent.
At the end of the year, Newton and his supervisor reviewed student progress, with the lower group exceeding its goal but the other two groups falling short. Newton’s SGO score — the number used in his evaluation, which in turn can impact his tenure — was 3.44.
Such specificity is ridiculous, said Weber.
"The notion that you could tell the difference in an SGO between a 3.3 and 3.2 is silly," he said. "The precision is utterly phony. There is no evidence that you can get that fine a distinction between teachers."
West Windsor High School South English teacher Andrea Scaturo agrees with the philosophy of the SGOs, but not in their use to create data on teachers and students. Too much of what a teacher does is subjective, she said, and there are too many factors in a student’s life that are not accounted for when measuring their progress over a period of time.
"You’re making a decision that this kid who did well in the beginning (of the school year) is going to be a high achiever, but then his parents get divorced, or he gets sick, or there’s a hurricane," she said. "That isn’t factored into the scoring process."
Lack of training and understanding about SGOs prompted state officials last month to create a new appeals process for teachers whose SGOs adversely affected their annual evaluations. Shulman said as many as several hundred teacher evaluations were invalid because of flaws in the SGOs.
"It was not a good experience the first year," said Wendell Steinhauer, president of the New Jersey Education Association, the state’s largest teachers union. "I appreciate that they’re working on it. We both agree let’s do something to make it better."
And key to making it better is improving the training. Education officials are holding more than a dozen seminars this month and next, and the union is holding workshops, too.
"Now that we have a year under our belts, it will be easier," said Lower Alloways Creek Superintendent Jay Eitner. "Teachers who fear the SGO are teachers who aren’t well-trained in how it is supposed to work. It’s not a gotcha tool."