New teacher evaluations make some cry foul

A file photo of a teacher in a

A file photo of a teacher in a classroom. (June 16, 2006) Photo Credit: Getty Images

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Now it's teachers who will be graded on a curve.

Details of the state's new teacher evaluation system released last week suggest that using student performances on state test scores to determine a teacher's performance could lead to ratings of "highly effective" for about 7 percent of teachers involved statewide," "ineffective" for another 7 percent and somewhere in between for the remaining 86 percent.

Two years in the making, the evaluation system got its final push Monday when Gov. Andrew Cuomo signed into law an agreement to reveal the names of rated teachers to parents only, while releasing rating statistics -- with the names redacted -- to the public. Teachers are to receive their initial ratings in August or early September.

The evaluations have come under fire by Hudson Valley educators and parents, who say the system should be used to help teachers improve rather than serve as a punishment tool.

But state Education Commissioner John B. King Jr. says that's exactly what the model will do.

"Teacher and principal evaluations help teachers and principals improve their practice, which in turn helps students improve their performance," King said.

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Evaluations could have a strong impact on the careers of thousands of teachers statewide who potentially face "ineffective" ratings. Under the law, teachers categorized as "ineffective" two years running may be fired after due process hearings.

State test scores analyzed in the model released last week will count as 20 percent of a teacher's total evaluation. Districts also will factor in 60 percent from locally determined measures, such as classroom observation, and the remaining 20 percent will come from a local assessment for the overall rating.

As part of the ratings process, the state used a common statistical measure known as a standard deviation, producing an illustration of teacher-performance levels that resembles a bell-shaped curve. The preliminary percentages, based on 2011 test scores, could change as state education officials analyze the latest scores from tests administered in April.

Some educators have questioned the rankings approach, saying that it does not provide a "magic number" for determining how teachers actually perform but simply a statistical means of determining which teachers fall within the average range and which do not.

"It's a little disappointing if they're putting everybody into a mold," said Pat Puleo, an art teacher in Yonkers Public Schools who heads the local teachers union. "The concept was to develop an evaluation system that would promote growth. If they've already decided that 7 percent would be at the top and 7 percent would be at the bottom, they've betrayed the system."

State education officials defend the system, noting that teachers will be rated according to students' improvement on standardized tests of English and math -- not on whether students score high or low. Principals also are being evaluated.

"Every educator has a fair chance to do well on these measures regardless of the composition of his/her class or school," the officials state in the summary of the new system.

The state's elected leaders and teacher-union representatives agreed on the new evaluation rules in February, altering the law passed in 2010 that helped the state win $700 million in federal "Race to the Top" money.

Still, many teachers remain wary of the ratings process itself, saying that it is statistically imprecise and prone to error.

Hudson Valley parent groups are also questioning using the state's current test to rate teachers, saying the tests themselves are neither good measures of student achievement nor tools to help teachers improve.

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"Assessments should be used to inform learning and teaching," said Nyack parent Jen Marraccino, who is part of a parent-advocacy group called Restore Education Funding. "The current standardized tests are not actually helping our teachers learn how to better educate students."

Teachers also note that such tests originally were designed not to evaluate their work but to determine whether students met basic academic standards. Consequently, most test questions are written to measure achievement in the average range -- not to determine whether teachers have inspired students to aim higher.

"We're just scoring students on standardized tests that are mostly multiple choice, and that's not a real measure of higher-level thinking and writing skills," said Maria Slobodsky, who teaches English as a second language in grades 5-7 at Willets Road Intermediate School in Roslyn Heights. "Schools are not factories, and students are not products."

Initial state ratings will cover about 52,000 teachers statewide who teach English, math or both in grades 4-8. A small number of districts statewide have evaluation plans in place and are using them to rate teachers this year, state officials say. Other districts will have to have evaluation plans approved by the state by January or risk losing an increase in state aid.

Educators also have questioned the speedy implementation of the complex law. Puleo said Yonkers administrators received final training from the state only two weeks ago on how to evaluate teachers.

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Some school leaders doubt the state can adequately train local personnel within the next few months to explain complicated ratings to teachers and parents.

"We're talking about principals in 700 districts giving data to teachers that they don't understand," said Jack Bierwirth, superintendent of Herricks schools and a member of a state-appointed advisory group on test measurement.

With Jo Napolitano and Meghan E. Murphy

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