Nearly all of Idaho’s teachers earned top scores on their annual evaluations last year.
An Idaho Education News analysis of teacher evaluation data maintained by the State Department of Education found that more than 97 percent of the state’s 17,635 teachers earned one of the top two overall scores of “proficient” or “distinguished” on their evaluations.
Administrators in 42 of Idaho’s school districts or charter schools awarded every single teacher one of the top two scores — indicating that none of their teachers scored “unsatisfactory” or “basic.”
Teachers can earn a score of “unsatisfactory,” “basic,” “proficient” or “distinguished” on their evaluations, which must be aligned to Charlotte Danielson’s Framework for Teaching.
But Charlotte Danielson, the developer and namesake of the state’s teacher evaluation tool, has said numbers in Idaho and other states raise a red flag.
“People are justified in being skeptical of how accurate evaluations are because in most states 98 percent of teachers are given the top two ratings, or some unlikely percentage — nobody really believes that’s the case,” Danielson told Idaho Ed News in April. “That keeps everybody quiet and nobody is going to complain about that, that’s probably one reason to do it.”
Teacher evaluations are based on a combination of the evaluation, which must include two classroom observations, and student achievement. Teachers are earning overwhelmingly positive evaluation scores during a period when closely watched indicators, including high school go-on-rates and performance on standardized tests such as the SAT and Idaho Standards Achievement Test by Smarter Balanced (SBAC), are flat or showing modest growth. Districts choose which student achievement indicators are calculated, and may not figure in go-on rates or test scores.
Teachers’ evaluations are a closely watched and increasingly important issue in Idaho. The Legislature tied a teacher’s ability to earn a raise to evaluations through the state’s career ladder salary law.
Danielson said using evaluations in that way concerns her, especially if the data isn’t valid.
“I want to make sure the right people are getting the raise, and I’m not convinced,” Danielson said.
In 2015, two Idaho superintendents — retired New Plymouth superintendent and current state Rep. Ryan Kerby, and Sugar-Salem superintendent Alan Dunn — told Idaho Ed News they intentionally and falsely awarded identical overall evaluation scores to all of their teachers in an effort to protect employee privacy.
State Board of Education member Debbie Critchfield believes Kerby and Dunn were outliers and that Idaho is turning the corner with evaluations. Critchfield said she is committed to ensuring a transparent, valid and fair process for teachers, students and taxpayers. At the same time, she said she is putting her trust in administrators that they will use the evaluation tool fairly and accurately because they are professionals who have a vested interest in helping their teachers improve their skills.
“As a board, we’re not so much concerned with the results, although they are important and we want them to be valid,” Critchfield said. “We’re not looking to fill a quota of ‘x’ amount of proficient teachers or ‘x’ amount distinguished, and we’re not looking to place people on a bell curve either.”
Critchfield said additional oversight methods the State Board began employing last year will add a layer of transparency and should give taxpayers and policy makers more confidence in the evaluations.
The State Board began selecting school administrators at random and spot-checking their evaluations to ensure the evaluations are complete and adhere to Idaho law.
Following the first spot-check last year, the State Board reported that 64 percent of school districts met the Idaho’s minimum standards for evaluations, while 49 percent included all the state’s criteria.
Last year’s Legislature also invested $1 million in training on evaluations, which Critchfield believes will help address confusion in the field.
As a result, Critchfield says the evaluations from this 2017-18 school year will be vitally important because educators and administrators will have the benefit of funding, increased training and heightened public awareness of what is expected in evaluations.
“I don’t believe any administrator goes into evaluations not taking them seriously or wanting to skew results,” Critchfield said. “I fundamentally don’t believe that. I believe administrators are professionals and take what they do seriously.”
The most recent batch of state data shows one red flag is showing up less often. Two years ago, 32 Idaho school districts or charters reported that every single teacher earned the exact same overall evaluation score — “proficient.” Last year, that number increased to 35 districts reporting that all of their teachers earned the exact same score on a four-point scale. This year, just 23 school districts or charters — many of them small districts or online schools — reported that all of their teachers earned the exact same overall evaluation score.
On the most recent round of evaluations, Idaho Falls was the largest district in the state to report that all of its 562 teachers earned one of the top two scores on evaluations.
Sarah Sanders, the director of secondary education in the Idaho Falls school district, said administrators view evaluations as a tool to foster growth and improve teaching. She said administrators do not view evaluations as just another report to check boxes on and did not handle evaluations in the way that Dunn and Kerby previously reported awarding identical scores in other districts.
“We absolutely do not do that,” Sanders said. “We believe in the evaluations process and growth prospects for professionals.”
Idaho Falls administrators kick off the evaluations process in the fall with building administrators documenting one classroom observation for each teacher, Sanders said. The teacher and administrator have a conversation about strengths and weaknesses and the teacher uses that first observation to set goals for improving for the rest of the year.
Throughout the year, a teacher would circle back to that initial observation, while the district offers professional development training opportunities for a teacher to improve on those findings. Additionally, the teacher may work with an instructional coach or with colleagues in small groups called professional learning communities to focus on maximizing certain goals.
At the end of the year, the administrator will return for a follow-up observation, focusing on growth and whether a teacher showed improvement and met any benchmarks or goals established.
Sanders emphasized that even though all teachers earned overall scores of “proficient” or “distinguished,” some likely had different scores on the 22 smaller components that are added up to calculate an overall score through Danielson’s framework.
“Our goal is to help them grow and improve and be better educators and better instructors in the classroom,” Sanders said.
Idaho Education News data and policy analyst Randy Schrader contributed to this report.