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Board of Regents gives districts, unions greater control over teacher evaluations

Science teacher Melissa Samuelson teaches eighth-grade students in

Science teacher Melissa Samuelson teaches eighth-grade students in a classroom at Longwood Junior High School in Middle Island in 2016. The way teachers are evaluated will change following a Board of Regents vote Tuesday.  Photo Credit: Gordon M. Grant

ALBANY — New York State’s controversial system of evaluating teachers based largely on computer-generated student “growth” scores formally ended Tuesday, with the adoption of a new process giving local school districts and their unions greater control over job ratings.

Under the new system, approved unanimously by the state Board of Regents, about half of teachers’ ratings will continue to depend on students’ test performance, with the other half based on classroom observations by principals and other supervisors. However, local districts for the first time will be empowered to choose the testing criteria, rather than leaving that decision to Albany.

Annual evaluations, under law, apply to about 190,000 teachers statewide, including about 35,000 on Long Island, and to thousands of principals as well.

The old system, adopted in 2015, proved highly unpopular both with teacher unions and many parents, who responded by pulling their children out of annual state tests in large numbers. About 43 percent of students in Nassau and Suffolk counties boycotted tests in grades three through eight during the latest round in the spring — by far the highest number in the state, though down about 7 percentage points from the year before.

Boycott leaders contended that basing much of teacher job ratings on student scores put too much pressure on faculty and children alike.

Andy Pallotta, president of New York State United Teachers, a statewide union umbrella group, issued a statement in advance of Tuesday’s vote by the Regents, describing the new regulations as a reflection of state efforts to “fix New York’s broken teacher evaluation system.”

In a sense, Tuesday’s action by the Regents was an anticlimax. The policymaking board simply approved new statewide regulations that will carry out a teacher-evaluation law that the State Legislature already passed in January.

Still, Tuesday’s vote provided an opportunity for some candid reflection on how the state’s evaluation system has worked out in practice.

Many districts on the Island and elsewhere, in an effort to ease tensions over testing in the lower grades, have adopted the practice of basing evaluations on Regents exams, which are administered at the high school level. Under this approach, job ratings often are given out collectively — that is, all teachers in a district are judged on the basis of how students score on high school exams in algebra, world history and other academic subjects.

This districtwide approach has the advantage of being relatively straightforward, simple and focused on exams that have a major impact on students’ academic records, supporters say. On the other hand, critics of the system contend that effects of the approach could be considered bizarre, in that teachers often find themselves rated according to outcomes of classes for which they have no direct responsibility.

Regent Roger Tilles of Manhasset, who represents Long Island on the board, commented during Tuesday’s discussion of the new regulations that evaluations could seem “almost laughable, when you’re rating someone based on someone else’s work.”

Alex Trikalinos, a state Education Department official who presented the regulations to the Regents, responded that districts and their teacher unions were given latitude in deciding how evaluations should be handled locally.

“Nothing requires teachers to be evaluated based on districtwide criteria,” said Trikalinos, executive director of the department’s Office of Teacher/Principal Quality and Professional Development.

Defenders of the collective approach often acknowledge that it is not ideal, while adding that it, at least, reduces the burden that districts would face if they tried designing tests to measure the performance of teachers in dozens of specialty areas.

Joseph Romano, a teacher and union official in the Levittown district, said during a phone interview Monday that he hoped local districts and the state could gradually improve evaluations under the new regulations, but that the collective approach was the most palatable alternative in the meantime.

“I do think a collective measure using the Regents exams is the best solution in a bad situation,” said Romano, a band director at Levittown’s MacArthur High School.

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