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 about 7 percent of teachers involved statewide could be rated "highly effective," about 7 percent "ineffective" and the remaining majority somewhere in between. Ratings are based on improvements in student test scores.
Evaluations could have a strong impact on the careers of thousands of teachers statewide and hundreds on Long Island who potentially face "ineffective" ratings. Under the law, teachers categorized as "ineffective" two years running may be fired after due-process hearings.
State education officials caution that the preliminary percentages, based on 2011 test scores, could change, at least slightly, as they analyze the latest scores from tests administered in April.
As part of the ratings process, the state used a common statistical measure known as a standard deviation to rank 76 percent of teachers within the "effective" range, with smaller percentages ranked above and below. An illustration of teacher-performance levels prepared by the state resembles a bell-shaped curve.
Some educators in New York have questioned that 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.
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," those officials state in the summary of the new system.
The evaluation system, two years in the making, got a final push last week, when Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo and state lawmakers agreed to reveal names of rated teachers to parents only, while releasing rating statistics with names redacted to the public. Teachers are to receive their initial ratings in August or early September.
The state's elected leaders and teacher-union representatives agreed on the new evaluations in February, in order to win $700 million in federal "Race to the Top" money. Many teachers remain wary of the ratings process itself, saying that it is statistically imprecise and prone to error.
Teachers contend, for example, that many students do not take the state's tests seriously, knowing that scores will not count toward their school grades.
"I have nothing against being evaluated," said Melissa McMullen, who teaches sixth-grade English and social studies at John F. Kennedy Middle School in Port Jefferson Station. "But I just want to be evaluated by a system that works. And these tests have a number of flaws."
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 to 7 at Willets Road Intermediate School in Roslyn Heights. "Schools are not factories, and students are not products."
Under the new system, 20 percent of teachers' evaluations will be based on state ratings. Another 20 percent will be based on the results of tests locally selected, with 60 percent based on classroom observations and other subjective measures.
Initial state ratings will cover about 52,000 teachers statewide, including 7,000 on the Island, who teach English, math or both in grades 4 through 8. A small number of districts statewide including Rochester and Syracuse 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 loss of state-aid increases.
The state's portion of evaluations will be based on complex statistical "growth" analysis, which looks at each students' progress on state tests from one year to the next, matching that against the progress of similar students. A mathematical formula will be used to take into account students' past performance, poverty, disabilities and limited English.
New York State is not alone in pushing for stricter teacher evaluations. More than 30 states, including Maryland, Ohio, Tennessee and Louisiana, have adopted systems that link teacher evaluations to student performance -- an approach promoted by the federal government as critical to education reform.
New York State officials underline the importance of evaluations by saying that only 34.7 percent of high school graduates statewide -- and 49.7 percent on the Island -- can be considered adequately prepared for college. Improving instruction is crucial to boosting those statistics, officials say.
"Teacher and principal evaluations help teachers and principals improve their practice, which in turn helps students improve their performance," said state Education Commissioner John B. King Jr.
Many Island 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
TEACHERS GRADED ON A CURVE
An illustration of how teachers could be rated under the state's new evaluation system. Figures are based on spring 2011 test scores and could change when scores from this past spring are factored in.
7 percent of teachers: "highly effective" category, meaning well above state average for similar students
76 percent: "effective," average range for state for similar students
10 percent: "developing," below state average for similar students
7 percent: "ineffective," well below state average for similar students
Source: NYS Education Department