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Frustrated school principals: State job-performance scores don't add up

Dr. Sean Feeney, principal of the Wheatley School

Dr. Sean Feeney, principal of the Wheatley School and president of the Nassau County School Principals Association, is shown in his school in Old Westbury. Feeney is a leading opponent of the state's job-evaluation system. (Oct. 25, 2013) Credit: Howard Schnapp

Frustrated school principals say their new state job-performance scores don't add up.

Much of the controversy about evaluations in New York State revolves around those given to more than 126,000 public school teachers. But many of the 3,200 principals rated also have complaints about what they see as unequal and inconsistent treatment of their profession.

A statewide summary of principals' job ratings from the state Department of Education was released last month for the first time.

Sean Feeney, principal of The Wheatley School in Old Westbury, offered his own experience as an example of the rating system's contradictions.

The state gave the veteran administrator two different scores based on students' academic growth. Neither mark was high, though Feeney, principal for eight years, heads one of Long Island's top-rated public high schools, which serves grades eight through 12.

He got a score of "developing" -- one step above "ineffective" -- for his work with the school's eighth-graders, categorized by the state as middle-school level. He got a higher mark of "effective" for his work among older students, categorized as high-school level.

"It's insanity," said Feeney, adding that his scores reflect broader problems in statewide evaluations. Feeney is president of the Nassau County High School Principals Association.

Top state education officials have said that multiple measures of job performance provide reasonable assurance of fairness. For instance, Feeney received an overall rating of "effective," based on a composite of state scores and local measures including job observations.

The state's overall rating for principals showed 26 percent rated "highly effective;" 60.9 percent "effective;" 7.5 percent "developing;" and 2.1 percent "ineffective." In contrast, 49.7 percent of teachers scored at the highest level, and only 1 percent at the lowest.

Principals, like teachers, face potential job loss if rated "ineffective" for two consecutive years.

State authorities do acknowledge quirks in the intertwined system of student testing and adult job evaluations, and predict it will improve with time.

"This is the first year -- we will get better," Education Commissioner John B. King Jr. said after the Oct. 22 release of statewide ratings.

One example he cited is the double-testing of eighth-graders who "accelerate" into Regents-level algebra courses once reserved for ninth-graders.

Those eighth-graders take both high school algebra exams and eighth-grade math tests, as required by federal and state rules. The idea is to measure all students against a uniform standard. But double-testing puts extra pressure on students, as well as on teachers and principals such as Feeney, whose evaluations now depend partly on test results.

The Board of Regents, at its meeting last month, decided to seek a waiver from the U.S. Department of Education that would allow elimination of that double-testing, similar to an exemption recently obtained by Tennessee.

That could spell eventual relief for Island schools, many of which accelerate eighth-graders in math. Principals call a waiver long overdue.

Timothy Martin, now in his 10th year as principal of Islip Middle School, said his math teachers received less-than-effective ratings from Albany, even though 89 percent of their eighth-graders passed the ninth-grade-level Regents algebra exams.

"Those are teachers I would want my own kids to have," he said.

Martin added that he is skeptical of a state analysis showing little difference between job ratings of teachers whose eighth-graders study algebra, and those whose eighth-graders take regular math.

Most states require annual ratings of principals as well as teachers. A growing number, under federal prodding, have begun using test scores as one measure of performance.

"Certainly, it is hugely important to evaluate principals. They're the leaders of schools," said Kathy Christie, a vice president of the Education Commission of the States. The Denver-based agency provides research and other information on school issues.

"The trick is to get a system of evaluation that is accurate, that measures what counts and is doable," Christie added. "So I think you won't find a consensus on how great a role student growth should take."

Under law, 60 percent of ratings for principals and teachers comes from job observations and other subjective measures. Forty percent is from results of state tests in English and math or other objective measures.

There are differences in the rules that apply to principals, however.

Principals, for example, depend solely on results of state tests and Regents exams for 20 percent of their ratings, known as "growth scores." These are calculated by the state.

Most teachers, however, get the same 20 percent of ratings from so-called Student Learning Objectives, or SLOs. Those are local measures that might include, say, students' portfolios in art classes, as well as test results.

Principals also are held accountable on their evaluations for student absences, a factor that does not count against teachers. The state's rationale is that principals bear more responsibility for enforcing attendance.

Union representatives said such differences help to explain principals' lower job ratings. The School Administrators Association of New York State, which counts more than 7,000 principals and other supervisors as members, considers the attendance issue divisive.

"Just treat us the same as teachers," said James Viola, the association's director of government relations.

Among local principals, one of the biggest complaints is that current state ratings seem contradictory.

Chris Herr, principal of Westhampton Beach Senior High School, noted that he got a state mark of "effective," a step below the highest rating. Meanwhile, his school won the state Education Department's highest "rewards" designation for superior student achievement.

"Some of these things just don't match up," Herr said.

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