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The number of states embracing contentious education reforms meant to increase accountability for teachers rose rapidly last year. In 2009, no states tied tenure to a teacher’s performance in the classroom as measured by student achievement on standardized tests. Now, 15 states have policies that base teacher tenure partly on student test scores, up from eight just a year earlier, according to a report released Monday by the advocacy group, StudentsFirst.

education reforms
The StudentsFirst report found that more states are using teacher performance data to make decisions on hiring, layoffs, and tenures than ever before.

The tenure reforms have drawn heavy criticism from educators who worry about the reliability and fairness of relying on standardized tests. Yet even as many states have made sweeping changes, which also include increasing the number of charter schools and rewarding teachers based on student achievement, most are not doing enough to implement education policies that will better serve students and schools, according to StudentsFirst, which was founded by the former chancellor of the Washington, D.C. public schools, Michelle Rhee.

The group gave each state an A through F rating based on the number and success of policies that match StudentsFirst’s priorities around topics such as charter schools and teacher evaluations. Only two states received a rating of “B-“ which was the highest score awarded. The report highlights which policies individual states have adopted in the past few years, providing an update on state-by-state changes to education laws following a similar report by another pro-reform group, the National Council on Teacher Quality (NCTQ), in 2011.

States like Louisiana and Hawaii, which NCTQ identified two years ago as mediocre, have since made changes that earned them relatively high ratings in the StudentsFirst report. While the Hawaii State Teachers Union has been locked in a battle with the state over a new contract that would link student test scores to teacher ratings and pay, education reformers have praised the state for creating a merit pay pilot program and funding charter schools.

And Louisiana implemented sweeping changes to its teacher evaluation system in 2012, linking hiring, layoffs and tenure to performance. Louisiana’s State Superintendent John White said the report validates the “courage and boldness” of Louisiana policy makers, voters and educators. “Our schools are improving as a result,” White said. “But we still have a lot of work left to do.”

The number of states requiring districts to use a merit pay system has also increased, from three in 2011, according to the NCTQ report, to seven as of December 2012, according to StudentsFirst. More than 20 states have passed or are considering laws that would allow parents to take over failing schools.

Several states have resisted the wave of changes prompted partly by the Obama administration, which offered states and districts millions of dollars in federal aid in exchange for overhauling their education policies through its Race to the Top program. California was ranked 51st by NCTQ in 2011 and 41st by StudentsFirst. Although a few California districts are adopting new teacher evaluation systems and embracing controversial “parent trigger” laws, Richard Zeiger, California’s chief deputy superintendent, told The New York Times that the state disagrees with StudentsFirst’s “extremely narrow, unproven method that they think will improve teaching.”

The American Federation of Teachers (AFT) compared the StudentsFirst scores with state results on the National Assessment of Educational Progress and state grades compiled by Education Week. While NAEP scores and Education Week rankings were generally in consensus, the StudentsFirst rankings were dramatically different for many states. For instance, Massachusetts, which was ranked 14th by StudentsFirst and given a D+, received a B+ from Education Week and was ranked first on 4th grade reading and 8th grade math NAEP tests in 2011.

“The StudentsFirst report cards are merely political scorecards designed to push the organization’s state legislative agenda,” wrote Carolyn Fiddler from AFT in a statement released Monday. Fiddler added that the report cards only measure “whether states are buying into the StudentsFirst agenda.”

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