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At 26 and with four years of teaching music at Eisenhower Middle School in Albuquerque under his belt, Nick Prior is ready to take his career to its next phase.
That would mean advancing from a state-certified Level 1 instructor to Level 2, which would bump his modest salary from $30,000 a year to $40,000 a year. Prior leads six choir groups at the school, half of which have earned state awards. One of the choir groups that Prior leads even took home a Best Showmanship and a Best Musicianship award when it competed nationally at Los Alamitos “Xtravaganza” last year in California.
He isn’t modest in talking about the honors his choir groups have earned.
“With the success that my program has had, there’s not really much room for improvement,” Prior told New Mexico Political Report in a recent interview.
This year, Prior scored just 112 out of 200 possible points on his state-mandated teacher evaluation, ranking him “minimally effective.”
It’s also a dramatic drop from last year’s evaluation, when Prior scored a “highly effective” ranking. That’s because this year, half of Prior’s evaluation is based on student standardized test score improvements.
In the category marked “student achievement,” Prior scored a 33.25 out of a possible 100 points, too low for him to be able to apply for a Level 2 license this summer. If his ranking doesn’t improve by next year, Prior’s teacher license will expire. In that situation, he either must apply for an extension, teach somewhere else or drop teaching altogether.
But Prior is especially irritated that the testing portion of his evaluation isn’t actually based on any tests or class material he gave to his students. Nor is Prior’s score completely from all of his own students.
Instead, it comes directly from a portion of Eisenhower’s school grade, another controversial program imposed by the state Public Education Department designed to improve accountability in the education system.
Graded on students they don’t teach
The state gave Eisenhower an overall “B,” which represents an above average grade just like it would on a student’s report card. But the segment of the school’s grade that made up half of Prior’s evaluation came from the average of standardized test scores from the school’s lowest performing quarter of students over a period of three years up to 2014. In local education jargon, this demographic is known as “Q1” students.
Their test score data comes from the Standards Based Assessment (SBA), New Mexico’s flagship standardized test for its public schools until 2014. These tests measured reading and math skills—nothing related to the music lessons Prior teaches and the tests he gives his students.
Eisenhower’s “Q1” score came to 6.65 out of 20 possible points this year, according to the school’s grade, a low-enough ranking for an ‘F.’ So half of Prior’s evaluation came from simply multiplying that 6.65 number and the 20 possible points by five. That comes to his score of 33.25 out of 100.
Prior scored better on the other half of his evaluation, which was based primarily on his classroom observations and attendance.
“All those score marks were above the state and district average,” he said. “Once they added in the school grade from subjects I don’t teach and kids I don’t have, that’s what made me receive such a low score.”
Now he has to work another year on Level 1 pay, a prospect he describes as “awful.”
For critics of education reform, most of the attention revolves around the controversy of disproportionately using scores from “high stakes” standardized tests to hold teachers accountable. But what happens when that accountability isn’t related to any material that a teacher deals with directly?
It’s a situation many Albuquerque arts and electives teachers—particularly in middle schools— now find themselves in.
This logic, in the words of Jackson Middle School music teacher Steve Snowden, is akin to firing a school custodian based on a music teacher’s out-of-tune clarinets.
“The biggest issue I have—I don’t teach Math, I don’t teach English.” he said. “I may have some Q1 students, but many of these students I’ve never met before.”
To the Public Education Department, Prior and Snowden fall within a bureaucratic hierarchy known as Group B. According to the Department’s definition, that means teachers who “teach grades and/or subjects that can’t be meaningfully linked to the SBA.”
State teacher evaluations, therefore, are supposed to analyze different test scores for Group B teachers.
Group B teachers are fairly widespread and aren’t limited to just electives like art and music. They include all middle school social studies and science teachers. High school language arts and math teachers for freshmen and seniors are also lumped into this category, as well as 12th grade science teachers and career and technical education instructors.
Each Group B teacher is supposed to be evaluated on their own End of Course exam (EOC), subject to the topics they teach in class. But for those Group B teachers who don’t have their own End of Course exams, the state Education Department gave school districts “fallback options,” according to Carla Greene, a special projects director at Albuquerque Public Schools. A few of the options included using the “Q1” student test score material from the school grades.
APS ultimately chose the “Q1” student test score data to evaluate teachers in this situation because “those are the students most likely to see growth,” according to school district spokesman Rigo Chavez.
Yet New Mexico music teachers do, in fact, give out their own end of course music exams, which consists of a written evaluation and a performance evaluation.
Music teachers want their tests to count
Neil Swapp, a past president of the New Mexico Music Educators Association, who currently heads the music department at New Mexico School for the Arts in Santa Fe, helped put the EOC for state music teachers together.
He said that he knows for sure state Education Department didn’t use EOC performance data for teacher evaluations for this year. But beyond this, he has run into plenty of confusion over music EOCs.
“I’m contacted on a regular basis by teachers who’ve been told by their administrators that they either don’t have to give an EOC or they have to give an EOC to every student,” Swapp said. “It’s not clear what the process is.”
New Mexico Political Report reached out to state Education Department multiple times to find the extent of how many music teachers were actually evaluated on music test scores this year, as opposed to Math and English scores like Prior and Snowden. After both written and verbal exchanges, department spokesman Robert McEntyre did not provide any answers to the questions.
Greene, who is essentially acting as a go-between for Albuquerque teachers and the Public Education Department, said she has three inquiries into the state department regarding middle school music teachers who weren’t graded on their own EOC results, but rather on the school grade data.
For these three inquiries, Greene said she “cannot see that they have any end of course exam data in them.”
“I believe firmly if the teacher has administered an EOC, that is what they should be graded on,” Greene told New Mexico Political Report in a recent interview.
Snowden’s situation isn’t as dire as Prior’s. Overall, his teacher evaluation found him “effective,” which means his score this year wouldn’t prevent him from applying to the next teacher licensure level.
The student achievement portion of his score still significantly brought his total evaluation down. For its Q1 students, Jackson Middle School scored 9.84 out of 20 in its school grade this year, marking that portion an ‘F.’ That meant that just like Prior, half of Snowden’s score came from simply multiplying 9.84 by five to get 49.20 out of a possible 100 points.
Again, the data from this configuration came from measuring three years worth of growth in math and English standardized test scores from Jackson Middle School’s lowest-performing 25 percent of students.
Snowden, 38, said he doesn’t put any stock into his score. He has been teaching for 13 years, and he said that if the current state evaluation model stays the same, he will retire after putting in a minimum of 25 years at the district.
“I was evaluated on stuff I don’t teach,” Snowden said. “It doesn’t mean anything to me.”
Prior maintained that if things stay the same, he’ll leave New Mexico and teach someplace else.
“Teaching is what I know, it’s what I’m good at, it’s what I’m passionate about,” Prior said. “For $30,000 a year I work a 60-hour workweek for a state and a district that tells me I’m a poor teacher and I can’t keep my license.”
APS, for its part, has until June 18 to submit formal queries concerning teacher evaluation problems to the Public Education Department.
Note: This piece also appears in the ABQ Free Press.
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Correction: This story originally said Snowden had been teaching for 11 years. He has been working for 13 years. We regret the error.