Regent Roger Tilles attends a "summit" in Albany on Thursday,...

Regent Roger Tilles attends a "summit" in Albany on Thursday, May 7, 2015. Credit: Hans Pennink

A tightly organized state "summit" conference on teacher evaluations turned briefly raucous Thursday, as nationally recognized education researchers engaged in a sometimes snappish debate over whether student test scores could be used fairly and effectively to help rate teachers' job performance.

Dozens of teacher representatives and other school leaders from Long Island and elsewhere attending the invitation-only conference in Albany applauded and hooted as some academic panelists contended that ratings based on test scores were statistically flawed. Other panelists argued such scores were useful.

The nine-hour conference, hosted by the state's Board of Regents, drew about 200 educators to the theater of the New York State Museum.

In other action, state Education Department officials also told summit participants that they were extending the deadline for districts to submit evaluation plans.

Stephen Caldas, professor of educational leadership at Manhattanville College, asserted that "growth" scores based on Common Core standardized testing were too unreliable, statistically speaking, to be used in ratings that could result in teachers being fired. Nor, Caldas said, were any future improvements in the scoring system likely to be adequate.

"I feel like you can put Armor All on the tires, we can put in new brake pads, but these 'growth' models are a car without an engine," Caldas said.

Tom Kane, the Walter H. Gale professor of education at Harvard University's Graduate School of Education, shot back that three recent national research studies had shown the reliability of job ratings based on student scores. Kane himself directed one of the studies, financed by $45 million from a foundation supported by software billionaire Bill Gates.

"These measures are predictive of a teacher's likely future success with students," Kane told reporters later.

Such debates could help shape the state's education policy for years to come.

Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo had pushed until recently for basing 50 percent of teachers' job ratings on state test scores. After intense negotiations last month, the governor and state lawmakers settled on a more complicated formula that allows districts to factor in results from a second test battery. The Regents, a 17-member board that sets educational policy, now must decide how much weight to give each of the two types of assessments.

Earlier in the day, the state's senior deputy education commissioner, Ken Wagner, told summit participants that the department would grant districts extra flexibility in drawing up new plans for rating teachers and principals. Wagner said he would extend a previously set Sept. 1 deadline for districts to revise those plans and submit them to the Education Department. The extension, he said, should give districts an extra couple weeks to negotiate revisions with unions representing teachers and principals.

Many local school officials had called for more time, saying their labor contracts often ban calling in union leaders in the summer, making it virtually impossible to negotiate changes by Sept. 1.

Some summit participants voiced guarded optimism Thursday about the willingness of Wagner and other Education Department officials to exercise flexibility in allowing districts to meet deadlines that earlier seemed daunting.

Lorna Lewis, superintendent of Plainview-Old Bethpage schools, said she was encouraged by indications that districts might have to deal with only a few major issues in renegotiating evaluation plans with unions.

"If they make it so we don't have to revisit every issue, it's very possible that we can get this done this fall," said Lewis, who co-chairs a curriculum committee for the New York State Council of School Superintendents.

So far, yesterday's simulcast conference is the only semipublic discussion planned at the state level before the Regents and the Education Department tackle rewriting regulations governing evaluations of teachers and school principals.

Many individual Regents will be holding invitation-only conferences on evaluations in their home districts. Roger Tilles of Great Neck, who represents Nassau and Suffolk counties, plans Sept. 15 meetings in Brentwood and Syosset, and a Sept. 21 gathering in the Oyster Bay area.

Thursday's event took place against a backdrop of widespread public discontent with an the evaluation process linked to student test scores. Last month, an estimated 200,000 students statewide, including more than 66,000 in Nassau and Suffolk, were pulled out of tests by protesting parents.

The Regents have barely two months to revise regulations. The deadline is June 30.

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