The Early Grades Are Different: A Look at SLOs

This is part three of a four-part blog series on teacher evaluation in the early grades.

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With recent work highlighting the critical role that teachers play in student achievement, and with a nudge—or push—from education reformers and the Obama Administration, student growth measures have become a key part of teacher evaluation systems throughout the U.S. The most common way to measure student growth achievement is with standardized test scores. Since state standardized testing usually does not begin until third grade, states and districts have developed other methods to assess how much the “untested” younger students learn. According to the National Council on Teacher Quality’s 2015 State of the States report, 39 of the 43 states that require a student growth component in teacher evaluations weight student growth measures the same in untested grades/subjects as in tested grades.

But what is the best way to use the gains made during the school year by pre-K through second grade students to evaluate a teacher, where growth is not as straightforward as the difference between scores on tests? Student Learning Objectives (SLO) have emerged as a tool to evaluate an individual teacher’s impact on his or her students.

In 2013, New America released An Ocean of Unknowns: Risks and Opportunities in Using Student Achievement Data to Evaluate PreK–3rd Grade Teachers, a close look at how five states (Colorado, Delaware, Florida, Rhode Island, and Tennessee) and three school districts (Austin, TX; Hillsborough County, FL; and Washington, DC) were using SLOs and other measures of student growth in the early grades. In this post, we revisit Delaware and Washington, DC to see how they have adapted their system of SLOs to better serve early grades. We also take a look at the changing use of SLOs in Georgia.

The SLO process varies, but it generally involves teachers collecting baseline student data, setting measurable goals for students evaluated by an assessment, usually with the approval of their school leader, and working towards these goals throughout a school year. As of 2014, SLOs were part of teacher evaluation systems in at least 25 states.

This method of evaluating teachers has advantages. In addition to allowing schools to measure teacher impact in untested grades and subjects, educators using SLOs have reported that they promote data-driven instruction, increase collaboration between teachers and administrators, encourage closer tracking of student progress, and make use of higher-quality assessments. In multiple studies, teachers have reported spending more time analyzing student data and reflecting on their practice.

SLOs are not without limitations, however. The limited research on the link between SLO attainment and other measures of student achievement has yielded mixed results. Some studies have found some positive relationship between SLOs and student achievement, but others have found inconsistent correlations across subjects and grades. This inconsistency may partially be due to the fact that the use of SLOs varies widely between districts, schools, and even classrooms. Additional, rigorous research is needed to evaluate the consistency and accuracy of SLOs across subjects and grade levels, especially for PreK–2nd.

Additionally, questions remain about how effective the use of SLOs is, relative to other teacher evaluation measures, in differentiating teacher performance. Traditional evaluation, most commonly classroom observations, has been shown to fail in capturing a nuanced picture of professional performance, since the vast majority of teachers are rated highly. An Institute of Education Sciences study looking at eight early-adopting school districts found that the inclusion of alternate student growth measures, such as SLOs, yielded greater differentiation in teacher performance than ratings based on classroom observation. An evaluation in New Jersey also found that including student growth measures increased differentiation in teacher ratings, even though the vast majority of teachers remained in the higher ratings categories.

Setting goals for students requires walking a fine line between the ambitious (high goals) and the attainable (realistic ones). There are concerns that evaluating teachers on goals that they set for themselves creates an incentive for them to lean towards the attainable rather than the ambitious. Principals can counteract this by creating systems and rules that hold staff to high expectations. It takes significant time, resources, and expertise, however, for school leaders to implement these systems and create a culture that encourages teachers to aim for a balance of ambitious and attainable. To do this well, principals need sufficient professional development and support from the school district. Another challenge is that teachers might be essentially “grading themselves,” because they are highly involved in the SLO process—often writing, administering, and grading the assessments. There is a high potential for manipulation, especially when results are tied to high-stakes consequences such as merit pay, dismissal, or tenure.

Of the less-discussed challenges are those surrounding the implementation of SLOs in the early grades. Because of the significant variation in children’s development from pre-K through second grade, it can be difficult to create or select developmentally-appropriate assessments that reliably measure a teacher’s impact on students. As New America’s Laura Bornfreund and Clare McCann have explained, “the developmental growth of children in the early grades is directly linked to their academic growth….measures of literacy and numeracy alone do not account for a full picture of a young child’s learning or his teacher’s impact in laying the foundation for…long-term success in school.” Despite these challenges, many states and districts have gone ahead with SLOs in the early grades.

Delaware

In Delaware, the use of SLOs in the early grades remains a factor in the state’s teacher evaluation system, but the state’s use of SLOs has adapted over time to address concerns raised by teachers and administrators. In collaboration with their principal, teachers in all grades, including pre-K, set growth goals for students at the beginning of the year and can choose from a list of more than 200 approved assessments (both internal and external) to evaluate student progress. Teachers can also work with principals to select measures not included in the assessment bank. The state’s online database allows teachers to reference student growth data from previous years to help them set reasonable and appropriate goals.

The assessment bank was developed quickly and, at first, some assessments faced quality issues, prompting pushback from some teachers. But, according to Laura Schneider, Director of Educator Effectiveness at the Delaware Department of Education, the state has listened to concerns and improved assessments over time, thanks to an ongoing review process that includes regular reliability and validity tests of the assessments. In response to teacher and administrator feedback, Delaware has recently reduced the number of SLOs required from four to two because of time and resources involved with their administration. Delaware’s requirements surrounding SLOs do not differ by grade level.

Buy-in from teachers and administrators around the use of student growth measures in general has been challenging, but open communication and professional development have helped those at the school-level see the benefits of SLOs. While results are tied to formal teacher evaluations, “it’s about measuring student growth and not adult behavior,” Schneider said; “implementation has been improving over time as people realized that.”

District of Columbia Public Schools

In Washington, DC, a district that has aggressively pursued reforms in teacher evaluation, SLOs (referred to as Teacher Assessed Student Achievement Data, or TAS) are used to measure student growth in all grades and account for 15 percent of a teacher’s overall evaluation. District of Columbia Public Schools (DCPS) provides guidance around which assessments are appropriate for use in each grade. DCPS suggests that pre-K teachers use the observation-based assessment, Teaching Strategies GOLD, that evaluates students across seven domains: social-emotional, language, physical-gross motor, physical-fine motor, cognition, literacy, and math. While TS GOLD is recommended for all pre-K teachers, the decision of what assessment to use and how heavily to weight GOLD as a TAS assessment is ultimately left to principals.

DCPS may serve as an example of how schools and districts can overcome one of the key challenges of SLOs: the inability to compare teachers. While the implementation and assessment of SLOs often varies between classrooms and schools, the common use of TS GOLD across pre-K classes creates a standardized system in which teachers can be compared and trends at the classroom, school, and district level can be identified.

There is more variation in selected assessments in grades K–2. DCPS recommends a few appropriate assessments for these grades, but teachers have the flexibility to select other assessments or create their own with approval from their principal. According to the TAS guidance, “school leaders decide what assessments, weights, goals, tracking systems, and data collection methods are appropriate for their school.” While principals approve their teachers’ SLOs, DCPS reviews every single one, all 10,000 of them. According to Michelle Hudacsko, Deputy Chief of IMPACT, principals review their teachers’ TAS goals for appropriate rigor and then the district does a final review of all goals each year for workability, to ensure the goal can be scored appropriately at the end of the year.

Georgia

While Delaware and DCPS have adapted and continued to use SLOs over the years, Georgia has recently reversed course on the use of SLOs. Legislative action in 2016 determined that districts are no longer required to use SLOs as part of their teacher evaluation systems. Student growth now accounts for only 30 percent of a teacher’s evaluation score, reduced from 50 percent. Cindy Saxon, Associate Superintendent of Teacher and Leader Effectiveness for the Georgia Department of Education says, “this decision was an effort to reduce the testing burden on students and teachers.” Districts now have considerable discretion in selecting which type of student growth measures to use, be it SLOs or some other measurement such as an off-the-shelf assessment.

While the state is moving away from SLOs as a required student growth measure, Georgia’s innovative “resource library” may be an example for other states looking to support the use of SLOs. Containing more than 2,000 assessment items across courses and content, the resource library allows districts from across the state to access and share assessments for SLOs. The library also includes about 220 state exemplars for districts to use in their entirety, which were designed by Georgia educators to provide support for districts. It’s too soon to tell yet if districts will continue to use SLOs now that they are not required by the state.

Pulling back on SLOs may become a more widespread trend as states implement the new Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA). The law allows for much greater flexibility around teacher evaluations. In an EdWeek article shortly after the law was passed, Molly Spearman, the state superintendent for South Carolina, was quick to say that she’ll be delaying the state’s requirement for all districts to use SLOs by two years and “would like to make those measures an artifact examined by evaluators, not a specific, weighted component of each teacher's review.”

States and districts that continue to use SLOs must ensure that teachers and principals have the time, resources, and support to learn how to use them effectively and in a way that maintains high expectations for students and mitigates the possibility of manipulation. In the early grades, teachers and districts must be mindful about using appropriate assessments to measure student growth and should take advantage of the opportunities SLOs offer to gauge a student’s growth outside of the oftentimes limited domains of math and literacy. 

Authors:

Abbie Lieberman is a policy analyst with the Education Policy program at New America. She is a member of the Early & Elementary Education Policy team, where she provides research and analysis on policies that impact children from birth through third grade

David Loewenberg is a Fall 2016 intern with the Education Policy program at New America.