With new rules to judge students and faculty GCSD applies to be its own team

GUILDERLAND — Statewide changes in testing students and evaluating faculty have left school board members here frustrated.

“Let’s just call this what it is: An unfunded mandate in the most difficult year we’ve seen in a long time,” said board member Colleen O’Connell Tuesday after hearing a presentation on the changes.

School board President Richard Weisz worried that, with guidelines on evaluating teachers and principals not due out until March, at the earliest, Guilderland would be too far into its budget process to allow for added costs if needed.

“What do you want? The ability to plan?” asked O’Connell pointedly.

Superintendent Marie Wiles was more upbeat about the changes. “It gives us the opportunity to think deeply about our mission…to make sure our students are ready to face the real world,” she said.

Race to the Top

New York learned in August that it would get $700 million in federal Race to the Top funds, with half of that going to the State Education Department. The other half was divided among public schools according to Title 1, which is based on poverty counts. As a relatively wealthy district, Guilderland is receiving only $30,771, which, divided among seven schools over four years, comes out to about $1,000 a school per year.

After failing in the first round of competition for the funds, New York agreed to changes in order to receive the $700 million.

Wiles went over the four reform areas required for Race to the Top funding:

— Adopting international standards and tests to prepare students for college and work;

— Building data systems to measure student progress and inform faculty how to improve their practice;

— Recruiting, developing, retaining, and rewarding effective teachers and principals; and

—         Turning around the lowest achieving schools.

While the fourth reform doesn’t apply to Guilderland, the others do. The district must follow a new evaluation system for faculty and develop a “network team.”

Guilderland has applied to form its own team rather than become part of a regional team.

“It was not an easy decision,” said Wiles of applying to have an in-house team. “We thought long and hard about our options.”

Twenty-one school districts from Albany, Schenectady, Saratoga, and Schoharie counties have pooled their nearly $3 million in Race to the Top funds to create the Capital Region Network Team, which will be run by the districts and supported by the Capital Region Board of Cooperative Educational Services.

The 21 districts range from small rural to large city districts. Locally, this includes both the Voorheesville and Berne-Knox-Westerlo school districts.

“We need to look carefully, thoughtfully, reflectively at the data,” said Wiles. The team will focus on the “convergence of curriculum, instruction, and student achievement data,” she said, and will provide professional development and technical assistance.

If the State Education Department approves Guilderland’s application to have its own team, the district can use up to three-quarters of its allocated funds on other approved activities.

“We’re keeping this money local in order to address the needs we’ve identified,” said Wiles.

Evaluation of faculty

The new regulations for evaluating teachers and principals go into effect on Sept. 1, 2011, said Guilderland’s assistant superintendent for human resources, Lin Severance. They will be rated as highly effective, effective, developing, or ineffective.

Forty percent of the rating will be based on student achievement measures. At the start, 20 percent will be from state tests and 20 percent will be local; that will shift to 25 percent based on state tests, once the state has developed a student growth model, and 15 percent local.

Sixty percent will be developed locally through collective bargaining.

Eight of the nine mandated criteria are already part of Guilderland’s evaluation process, said Severance, and have been part of previous negotiations. “A lot of the work in the district has already been done,” she said. The state has supplied no guidance on the ninth criterion, she said.

“We’re going to be building this plane as we’re flying it,” she said.

The scores assigned to teachers and principals in evaluating them “would be FOIL-able,” said Severance, meaning they would be accessible to the public through the Freedom of Information Law.

The scores, she said, are meant to assist the district in making tenure decisions and to help the teachers to be the best they can be.

Evaluation of students

Through a process initiated by the National Governors Association, 26 states including New York have agreed to adopt Common Core Standards for English and math and revise standards in other subjects, said Demian Singleton, Guilderland’s assistant superintendent for instruction.

New York State will realign its high school diploma and tests for college and career success, he said.

A comprehensive data system will be developed to go from preschool to college. There is to be a statewide reporting system and an early warning system to help at-risk students.

“Data will ultimately become meaningless if not used effectively at all levels,’ said Singleton.

This past summer, the state announced that the cut-off scores would change for students required to get extra help. “This was imposed after the test had already been administered,” said Singleton.

Since districts hadn’t budgeted to pay for the extra help, the state allowed a year of grace where the old cut-offs would stand.

The labels for the four levels were also changed to: Below Standard, Meets Basic Standard, Meets Proficiency Standard, and Exceeds Proficiency Standard.

The new tests will become “secure,” said Singleton, explaining that, until now, past tests had been used as teaching tools.

A goal, in the future, he said is “to not have us too informed.” Students, he said, will “walk in…take the test cold.”

The State Education Department also allowed a year’s grace for the transition to the new cut-offs in schools’ adequate yearly progress.

“Formerly high-performing districts, like ourselves, are facing great challenges,” said Singleton. “We are entering, if not in, an era of reform.” The bars, he said, are being continuously raised.

“Programmatically, fiscally, we have some work ahead of us,’ said Singleton, concluding, “We will continue to seek the appropriate balance between what is mandated and what is best for kids.”

Wiles, in her concluding remarks, quoted Rick Stiggins, the founder of the Assessment Training Institute in Portland, Ore.: Students can hit any target that they can see and that doesn’t move on them.

“We can hit these targets,’ said Wiles, “but give us a chance to take aim.”

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