Public school teachers in New Jersey have begun the first year of state-required evaluations that could affect their tenure or job status.

But in many districts, it is students who are already being tested. To determine next spring how much students learned from their teachers, school officials are assessing students now to find out how much they already know.

In Mullica Township this month, all students took an online test in math and language arts to set a baseline for performance. Superintendent Brenda Harring-Marro said they explained to students and parents that the test was not being graded but would be used to help teachers do a better job.

“It is beautiful if it all works out,” she said. “Teachers won’t overemphasize what students already know, and it gives us the opportunity to individualize instruction to their needs.”

Students worked at their own pace and had no time limit to complete the tests.

“It was easy,” sixth-grader Kaylea Ford, 11, said of the math test. She did find the language arts test more challenging.

“I like math, and it was fun doing it on the computer,” she said.

Nationally, there have been support and criticism of high-stakes teacher evaluations in which poor student test scores could cost teachers their jobs. Financial incentives to improve teaching were included in the federal No Child Left Behind and Race to the Top initiatives.

Supporters say studies showing virtually all teachers being evaluated as effective prove that existing systems help neither teachers nor students. Critics say that using annual state test scores to rate teachers is too small and narrow a measure and that results fluctuate so much a teacher easily can go from excellent to failure in a year.

The AchieveNJ teacher-evaluation process tries to find a middle ground. Developed as part of the TEACHNJ tenure-overhaul law, regulations were approved by the state Board of Education this month after a period of public hearings that drew 635 comments, mostly from teachers. The process has multiple measures that include test scores, but it gives more weight to classroom observations.

Early response this year is a mix of hope and anxiety.

If done well, the new evaluations could improve teaching and learning. If the process is ineffective, inaccurate or too politically manipulated, it could set up students and teachers for failure.

“You don’t build a system to destroy people, you build it to help,” New Jersey Department of Education implementation manager Anthony Fitzpatrick told teachers at a recent workshop at Oakcrest High School in Mays Landing, during which he tried to reassure teachers the first year or two would be a learning process. “We want to promote collaboration.”

But the New Jersey Education Association, the state’s largest teachers’ union, is concerned that the process is being so rushed it could lead to abuse.

“No one is intimidated by a good evaluation,” NJEA spokesman Steve Baker said. “But our members feel like their careers are on the line.”

In grades four through eight, when students take an annual state test, those test scores will factor into a Student Growth Percentile, or SGP, that will account for 30 percent of the teacher’s evaluation. Fifteen percent of the evaluation will be based on other Student Growth Objectives, or SGOs, established by teachers and their principals. The rest will be based on as many as three classroom observations, not all done by the same person.

Locally, districts are taking different approaches. Some are adapting evaluation programs they had already started, others are using the new evaluations as an opportunity for change.

“We’re doing the best we can,” said Steven Ciccariello, superintendent of the Greater Egg Harbor Regional School District. “No one really likes it, but we are trying to come up with ways to do that that will be successful.”

Leah McDonnell, a school board member in Estell Manor and math teacher at Oakcrest High School, said there likely would be more testing than just a midterm and a final, but in a more ongoing and less formal process.

“Not all assessments are tests,” she said, noting that the “problem of the day” all students do as they arrive can quickly tell her how well they grasp a concept.

“Those kinds of assessments are for the teachers,” she said. “But we will have to monitor growth more.”

One thing everyone agrees on is that training the teachers and administrators is crucial to success. Richard Stockton College’s Southern Regional Institute and Educational Technology Training Center has done more than 100 workshops in 40 area school districts this year. Patricia Weeks, director of the institute, said they just went back to Toms River to review the process with principals because district officials wanted to make sure they were all doing the same thing.

“Consistency is important,” Weeks said. “The larger districts are particularly concerned about making sure everyone is on the same page.”

Many area districts are using the evaluation model developed by former educator Charlotte Danielson at Princeton, though other models are approved by the state.

Thomas Baruffi, superintendent of Linwood Public Schools and Mainland Regional High School, said they were using the model developed by Robert Marzano of Learning Sciences International in Blairsville, Pa., which includes ongoing assessment. Baruffi said they would begin their SGOs in October, which will include student preassessments, both teacher-developed and standardized, depending on the course.

Absecon, which is using the Danielson model, has completed staff training and will develop their SGOs during an Oct. 4 in-service day, Superintendent James Giaquinto said. He said that because the SGOs must be measurable, pretesting would be used in many content areas.

Northfield is also using Danielson. Superintendent Janice Fipp said the model was not revolutionary but had clearly defined expectations for planning and preparation, for the classroom environment, for the instruction provided and for teacher professional responsibilities.

“Once the expectations are clear, then the communication between and among the school administration and teachers and staff is excellent,” she said.

Fipp said Northfield had already been using formative assessments, or pretests, to get more information about each student and his or her needs and would continue to do so.

Weeks said Stockton used the Danielson model in its evaluations of student teachers in the teacher-education program, so graduates will be used to the process and what is expected of them once they start working.

Judee DeStefano, associate director for special projects at Stockton’s Southern Regional Institute, said anxiety had lessened with the training, especially in districts that had already been working to improve their evaluations.

“I think teachers are realizing it’s not that much different, just more organized and detailed,” she said.

Contact Diane D'Amico:

609-272-7241