School districts across Massachusetts overwhelmingly gave their teachers and administrators high marks under a new performance-review system that aims to weed out the worst educators and offer constructive advice to the others, according to data released Thursday.
The ratings — the first ever generated for schools statewide — show that most Massachusetts students are receiving classroom instruction that is engaging and pushing students to reach higher, said Mitchell Chester, state commissioner of elementary and secondary education.
“I’m very encouraged by the results,” Chester said.
Overall, 7.4 percent of all teachers and administrators evaluated during the last school year received the highest rating of exemplary; 85.2 percent were rated proficient; 6.8 percent were rated needs improvement; and fewer than 1 percent were deemed unsatisfactory.
Ratings are reported in the aggregate for teachers by district and school, and administrators districtwide. Data on individual educators were not made public.
The ratings came from more than 200 districts that accepted federal Race to the Top funds, which required recipients to adopt a rigorous statewide evaluation system. The districts cover a wide spectrum. Cities such as Boston, Springfield, and Fall River; suburbs like Newton, Marblehead, and Randolph; and charter schools.
Collectively, the ratings measure up against several barometers of student achievement, such as the SAT and NEAP exams, where Massachusetts often ranks first. State officials have frequently held up those test scores as evidence that Massachusetts schools offer top-notch instruction.
But some education observers questioned Thursday whether districts may have evaluated employees too lightly, noting that the intent of the new system is to bolster the performance of all educators, regardless of talent or skill.
“Evaluators need to be careful and rigorous in their use of the ratings” said Linda Noonan, executive director of the Massachusetts Business Alliance for Education, even as she complimented districts for the hard work in overhauling evaluations. “I would expect to see more in the needs-improvement category.”
Other education specialists said the decision by state and federal policymakers to make the data public ultimately could undermine efforts to help teachers and administrators grow professionally. The Race to the Top program requires participating states to report statewide results, and the Massachusetts Legislature last year also authorized a statewide release.
“The public release will lead to tremendous grade inflation” in the ratings,said Kim Marshall, a former Boston school principal who now advises districts on evaluation practices. “What you are taking away from is more authentic coaching of teachers.”
Massachusetts created its evaluation system under two-year-old regulations that require all educators to set improvement goals. The state is still rolling out various aspects of the new system.
As of now, evaluations are based largely on observations and “artifacts,” such as examples of student work or lesson plans. In the next two or three years, standardized test scores and other student achievement data will be incorporated.
Designating an educator “needs improvement” or “unsatisfactory” can be a high-stakes move.
Educators spend a year in the needs improvement category and are subject to more frequent observations and must complete a “directed growth plan.” Evaluators then decide whether to declare the individual proficient or unsatisfactory, the latter could lead to their dismissal in a matter of months.
It is a big change from the old system, where schools merely noted whether educators met expectations or did not meet standards — if they did evaluations at all.
The statewide ratings of teachers largely mirrored those released by Boston on its teaching force Wednesday. Boston issued its ratings separately under orders last week from the Secretary of State’s Office, which found the School Department wrongfully rejected a Globe public records request four months ago.James Vaznis can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @globevaznis.