June 18, 2013 :: Acknowledging that the nation’s educators face large challenges in preparing students for more rigorous academic standards and tests, Arne Duncan, the secretary of education, told state education officials on Tuesday that they could postpone making career decisions about teachers based on performance evaluations tied to new tests.
Education Secretary Arne Duncan has said “the rollout of new, higher, state-selected standards will continue on pace.”
Mr. Duncan wrote in a letter to state education officers that they could delay using teacher evaluations that incorporate test results for “personnel determinations” by another year, until 2016-17. The postponement was in response to growing complaints from teachers’ unions and school administrators that they were being held accountable for results on tests before they had time to adjust to new curriculum standards.
Over the past 18 months, states have agreed to adopt new “college and career ready” standards for mathematics and reading and to tether teacher performance ratings partly to student achievement on standardized tests based on those new standards. These changes are part of an agreement with the Department of Education that allowed states to qualify for waivers from No Child Left Behind, the signature Bush-era federal education law.
Most states were at risk of violating the most onerous provisions of that law, which required that all children be proficient in math and reading by 2014. The waivers relaxed that requirement in exchange for agreement by the states on a timeline for instituting the new standards and teacher evaluations.
As states have scrambled to revise their public school curriculums and develop the new performance ratings, teachers have complained that they have not had time to learn how to bring the new standards into their classrooms before being subjected to new tests. They have also protested that they are in effect forced to teach one curriculum in the morning and another in the afternoon, because some states are still administering old tests while introducing new standards.
Teachers’ unions have fought with education officials and lawmakers over the proper role of standardized tests in public schools and, most controversially, in individual ratings of teachers. A backlash against high-stakes testing has also been building in several states, including New York, Texas and Washington. And legislators and Tea Party critics in states including Indiana and Michigan have said that the federal Education Department has pushed the new standards on states without consulting teachers or parents.
In April, Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, warned that the new standards could be consigned to the “dustbin of history” and proposed that teachers be given a year to master the new curriculums before test results counted in tenure or other personnel decisions, including possible firings.
In his letter to state education chiefs, Mr. Duncan wrote that he appreciated “both the courage to tackle so many challenges at once and the burdens this imposes on frontline educators.”
The department will now allow states to apply, in effect, for waivers from their waivers. States that are introducing new tests will also be relieved of having to give both new and old tests in the same school year.
“This decision ensures that the rollout of new, higher, state-selected standards will continue on pace,” Mr. Duncan said in a statement, “but that states that need it will have some flexibility in when they begin using student growth data for high-stakes decisions.”
In a conference call with reporters, Mr. Duncan insisted that Tuesday’s announcement did not amount to a “pause or moratorium” in introducing new standards, tests or performance evaluations.
Some education policy groups expressed disappointment. Daria Hall, K-12 policy director at the Education Trust, a nonprofit group that advocates for racial minority students and low-income children, said the evaluations would be introduced without any teeth. “So you’re saying set up a system that tells us we have teachers who aren’t up to it, but don’t do anything about it for another year,” she said.
In an interview, Ms. Weingarten said she welcomed the flexibility. “It’s a big recognition that you have to actually prepare people to do the work that they need to do when you’ve asked them to do something fundamentally different,” she said, adding, “You can’t lead with measurement and testing.”
Some states have already put teacher evaluation systems in place and may begin using them to make decisions about raises, tenure or staff changes earlier. New York, for example, already rolled out new tests based on the more rigorous standards this year and has begun carrying out teacher evaluations in most of the state. Mitchell D. Chester, commissioner of elementary and secondary education in Massachusetts and the president of the Council of Chief State School Officers, said he hoped the secretary would guard against further extensions. “Inertia is a powerful force you can’t overestimate,” Mr. Chester said. “So I do worry that any signals on delays really do allow folks to hope that new evaluation programs are not implemented.”
A version of this article appeared in print on June 19, 2013, on page A15 of the New York edition with the headline: Education Chief Lets States Delay Use of Tests in Decisions About Teachers’ Jobs.