The Hechinger Report is a national nonprofit newsroom that reports on one topic: education. Sign up for our weekly newsletters to get stories like this delivered directly to your inbox.

When Scott Harris looked at recommended French tests he could use to measure his students’ progress this school year — and, by extension, his own success or failure as a teacher — he felt stymied by the lack of suitable options. For instance, the state’s suggested tests for Harris’ French I students at Louisiana State University Laboratory School featured sample questions ranging from basic vocabulary to asking students whether a passage from a 19th-century French novel represented commentary on the evolution of medicine.

Louisiana education
Scott Steckler, principal at George Cox Elementary School in Gretna conducts a pre-observation interview with teacher Lora Johnson in his office Thursday, October 18, 2012. “…For the most part the teachers are accepting of those achievement goals that have been determined by the school district,” Steckler said.(Photo by Ted Jackson, / The Times-Picayune)

“I thought, ‘I wouldn’t even do this to my older kids,’ ” Harris said.

For educators who teach subjects outside the state’s longstanding testing system, like foreign language, music, and art, the adjustment to the new teacher evaluation system has been particularly jarring. They are unaccustomed to worrying about high-stakes testing, much less having the results determine whether they can keep their jobs.

“I’ve felt kind of safe,” said Harris, who serves as president of the Louisiana Foreign Language Teachers’ Association. “In the past, I have not really had to worry about (testing) because of what I teach.”

In English, math, science, and social studies, teachers will be measured on their students’ progress on existing state tests. But Louisiana school districts have broad latitude when selecting the exams that will be used in subjects without standard state tests. In some cases, district officials are letting teachers choose or design the assessments on which they will be judged. In other cases, school boards, superintendents, or principals are picking the exams without consulting or even notifying teachers.

State Superintendent John White said state officials recommended a few possible exams in subjects like foreign languages. They also offered guidance on acceptable learning targets for students, and advice as to how administrators can use those targets to decide whether an individual teacher is “effective.” But they felt that it would be “a mistake to impose a test.”

“Our philosophy is that local leadership should be empowered,” he said.

Louisiana series

A new teacher evaluation system in Louisiana requires frequent classroom observations and the use of test score data in teacher ratings. The Hechinger Report has partnered with The Times-Picayune on a series of in-depth stories examining the possible benefits and pitfalls of the new policies.

Follow the series

Harris and the other foreign language teachers at the University Laboratory School, which is its own school district, had a fair amount of flexibility in selecting an assessment. So Harris created his own version of one of the state’s recommended tests, the Linguafolio. He incorporated the Linguafolio’s “I can” statements — which gauge whether students can use specific constructions or communicate different ideas in a foreign language — and designed the rest of the pre-test on his own.

Another Louisiana foreign language teacher, who asked not to be named because he feared for his job, said Spanish teachers at his school in the New Orleans area received no advance information about the test.

He was surprised to find the exam included several questions about cultural trivia. The Spanish II pre-test, for example, included multiple choice questions asking students to identify the equivalent of the Oscar award in Mexico (“El Ariel”); to name Penelope Cruz’ profession (“estrella de cine”); and to say which of several famous fashion designers hailed from the Dominican Republic (Oscar de la Renta). All told, a third of the test’s 40 questions focused on cultural trivia.

“I had to look up some of the questions, and I am a native speaker,” he said. To the extent that he talked about culture during several years of teaching Spanish, the teacher tended to focus on Mexican holidays and traditions like Cinco de Mayo and the Day of the Dead. The pre-test left him contemplating showing his students more Spanish and Mexican television shows.

The teacher said most of his students left their pre-tests blank, causing him to wonder how he’d be measured. As the fall progressed, however, he realized the new Spanish textbooks adopted by the school district included references to many of the pop-culture questions from the pre-test. But he had no idea whether the post-test — the results of which would determine his efficacy as a teacher — would be the same as the pre-test.

“We really don’t know what to do,” he said. “We don’t know what’s on the final test. We don’t even know what to teach to prepare the students. It really is a mess.”

White said earlier in the fall the state did not yet know which tests individual districts chose in subjects like foreign languages, art, and music. “I would imagine a wide range of assessments were used,” he said. White added that it’s the job of principals and other managers to communicate with teachers about the skills and lessons students will need to succeed on the post-tests.

Any time there’s such significant change, people will say they wish they had more time,” White said. But “there’s no substitute for quality leadership at the school level. In districts with their heads in the sand that didn’t get information to teachers, of course it will feel sudden for those teachers.”

At Cohen College Prep High, a charter school in New Orleans, Spanish teachers will be evaluated based on their students’ progress on the National Spanish Examinations, an existing standardized test, said CEO Ben Kleban. School officials there were wary of letting teachers design their own assessments — due to time constraints and the desire for an unbiased process — and chose the national exam because it most closely aligned to their curriculum.

Kleban said the new evaluation system forces schools to put more priority on subjects that previously had gone untested. “We’ve tended to over-prioritize tested subjects because it’s easier to set goals and measure results,” he said. “But that doesn’t really make sense.”

While he supports testing in more subjects, Kleban said he wishes the state’s formula for evaluating teachers was more open-ended. He cites in particular the requirement that teachers be evaluated half on their students’ test score growth, and half on administrator observations. “It starts to get a little bureaucratic,” he said.

For teachers, it’s the uncertainty that’s unnerving. The 18-year veteran said he plans to teach what’s in the new textbook and hope for the best. “I guess this will be a journey of discovery,” he said.

This story also appeared in The Times-Picayune on November 20, 2012 as part of an exclusive collaboration. Reproduction is not permitted.

The Hechinger Report provides in-depth, fact-based, unbiased reporting on education that is free to all readers. But that doesn't mean it's free to produce. Our work keeps educators and the public informed about pressing issues at schools and on campuses throughout the country. We tell the whole story, even when the details are inconvenient. Help us keep doing that.

Join us today.

Letters to the Editor

1 Letter

At The Hechinger Report, we publish thoughtful letters from readers that contribute to the ongoing discussion about the education topics we cover. Please read our guidelines for more information. We will not consider letters that do not contain a full name and valid email address. You may submit news tips or ideas here without a full name, but not letters.

By submitting your name, you grant us permission to publish it with your letter. We will never publish your email address. You must fill out all fields to submit a letter.

Submit a letter

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *