Many Charleston County teachers don't seem to like the idea of students' test scores being a major factor in their evaluation, with more than 60 percent saying in a recent survey that scores should count for 20 percent or less of their review.

That's a stark contrast to the proposal Charleston school officials made, which calls for 50 percent of teachers' ratings to be based on students' growth. That same percentage shows up in the statewide proposal for teachers' evaluations, too.

“The biggest thing for teachers is test scores,” said Kent Riddle, a teacher who leads the Charleston Teacher Alliance, an advocacy group for the district's educators. “It's not because teachers don't want to be evaluated; it's because teachers don't trust the results. There are variables across the district.”

The debate about how South Carolina should evaluate its teachers has become one of the state's hottest education issues, and groups from across the state are trying to influence the discussion.

Changes in Charleston

Charleston applied for and received a $23.7 million federal Teacher Incentive Fund grant. As part of that, the district proposed creating a new evaluation in which 50 percent of teachers' scores would come from students' growth, 40 percent will stem from the state's teacher evaluation program, ADEPT, and 10 percent will come from parent surveys.

The district pledged that each teacher would receive an overall effectiveness rating of either “unsatisfactory,” “needs improvement,” “proficient” or “exemplary.” The grant calls for pilot schools to use the evaluations based on student growth in 2013-14, and that would be expanded to all teachers the following year.

Melissa Matarazzo, the district's executive director of achievement and accountability, emphasized that the district's grant was a proposal, so the classifications and weighting percentages could change.

She said the district is in the process of creating a request for a proposal for a national company to design the evaluation, and teachers would be engaged in the process of creating it.

The district's system needs to be in line with the state's system, and the state has told the federal government that a “significant” percentage would be tied to student achievement, Matarazzo said. That makes it challenging for the district to lower its percentage, she said.

As part of that grant, the district also promised to realign its current single salary schedule to reward teachers based more on their quality and effectiveness rather than longevity and degrees.

That's another area in which the district's proposal conflicts with the alliance's survey. Of the more than 900 teachers who responded to the survey, 92 percent said they thought teachers with more experience should receive higher pay.

Teachers were virtually split on whether the district should maintain its current salary schedule, or whether it should add pay for performance bonuses to that.

“What's wrong with the system we have and why doesn't it work?” Riddle said. “I don't understand what's not working with that system.”

Changes across the state

The state is looking at changing its existing evaluation system to include a new “A” through “F” rating scale that would be based in part on student achievement, and that method is being “beta tested” this year in 22 schools, including six in Charleston County.

Although the plan is in an early phase of implementation, it's already drawing harsh criticism from education advocates who say it's unfair and wouldn't provide valid feedback.

That sentiment is so strong statewide that the state Board of Education passed a resolution in December asking the state Department of Education to work with groups such as the S.C. Association of School Administrators on an alternative plan.

State Superintendent of Education Mick Zais told the board that it was a “non-binding, unenforceable resolution,” and he called the board's decision “short-sighted.”

The League of Women Voters of South Carolina has been studying this issue since spring 2011, and is in the process of holding consensus meetings across the state to determine whether it wants to take a position on teacher evaluations.

The Charleston contingency of the league met last Wednesday and mostly agreed with the proposal, and the state league will make a final decision at its convention later this spring.

Their proposed stance lacks specific details but instead makes generalizations such as: the system evaluates all teachers; it has three to five categories of performances; it involves multiple measures; the ratings carry consequences; and teachers receive immediate feedback for improvement.

Barbara Zia, co-president of the state's league, said the goal is to make the statement broad enough so that it could apply to different issues in the future.

“It's a hot issue, and since we adopted the study in 2011, it has become even hotter,” she said. “We want to hear diverse opinions, and that's the purpose of the consensus meetings.”

Reach Diette Courrégé Casey at @Diette on Twitter or 937-5546.