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Albany justice vacates teacher’s rating based on test scores

Sheri Lederman, a fourth grade teacher at Baker

Sheri Lederman, a fourth grade teacher at Baker Elementary School in Great Neck, had a state Supreme Court justice set aside her "ineffective" rating based on student test scores. Credit: Uli Seit

A state Supreme Court Justice has ruled in favor of a Great Neck teacher who sued the state over its teacher evaluation model after she received an “ineffective” on the rating tied to students’ test performance — one year after being rated “effective” for similar scores.

The decision issued Tuesday by Justice Roger McDonough vacated and set aside what is known as the growth score and ineffective rating that elementary school teacher Sheri Lederman, received in the 2013-14 school year. Lederman, 54, who filed the suit in Albany in October 2014, is believed to be the first individual teacher to challenge state ratings in court.

Growth scores are based on improvement in student performance on standardized tests in English and math administered each spring.

Lederman, who holds a doctorate in education, had claimed in her suit against the state Education Department that the evaluation system was statistically flawed, lacked a proper appeals process and could be particularly unfair to teachers whose students consistently score well on state standardized tests.

“We feel greatly relieved and gratified that after almost 18 months of litigation the judge recognized that the rating of Sheri . . . was utterly irrational,” said her husband, Bruce Lederman, who served as her attorney. “We hope this case will cause politicians throughout the country to realize that the system — which has been politically pushed in the name of accountability — simply does not work.”

The court declined to make an overall ruling on the rating system.

“The Court fully recognizes that it does not have the educational background, resources, or time to propose a meaningful replacement for New York’s growth model system or to propose sound fixes for any arguable flaws of said system, and as such does not lightly enter into a critical analysis of this matter,” read the decision.

“The Court is constrained . . . to conclude that petitioner has met her high burden and established that petitioner’s growth score and rating for school year 2013-2014 are arbitrary and capricious.”

Jonathan Burman, an Education Department spokesman, said department policy is to not comment on litigation.

The fourth-grade teacher at E.M. Baker School filed suit against the state Education Department, challenging the evaluation model. Although her students’ performance on state standardized tests was virtually identical in 2013 and 2014, her attorney said — with children meeting or exceeding state standards — Lederman received a score of 14 out of 20 and a score of 1 out of 20 in those years respectively without any explanation of the change.

In the rating system, known as Annual Professional Performance Review, or APPR, teachers and principals receive composite ratings of “highly effective,” “effective,” “developing” and “ineffective.”

Test scores can now count for as much as half the evaluations of teachers and principals, under statutory changes approved last year by Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo and legislators.

But, after much public protest, the Board of Regents last year passed a four-year moratorium preventing test scores from being used punitively against students or in teacher job ratings. New Regents leaders have also launched an inquiry into the validity of the state test system and its links to evaluations.

The suit names as defendants former Education Commissioner John B. King Jr., Assistant Commissioner Candace H. Shyer and the department’s Office of State Assessment. King is now U.S. Secretary of Education.

McDonough concluded in the ruling that the scoring model is biased against teachers with high- and low-performing students, saying the state failed to address the “inability of high-performing students to demonstrate growth akin to lower-performing students.”

The state also failed to explain the swing in her growth score from 14 to 1 despite students receiving similar scores in 2013 and 2014, he ruled. He cited, “Most tellingly, the strict imposition of rating constraints in the form of a ‘bell curve’ that places teachers in four categories via pre-determined percentages regardless of whether the performance of students dramatically rose or dramatically fell from the previous year.”

New York State United Teachers issued a statement, saying: “Sheri Lederman’s case is Exhibit A of why that moratorium was needed in the first place.”

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