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State: Computer glitch threw off evaluation scores of principals, schools

Elizabeth Berlin, the New York State Education Department's

Elizabeth Berlin, the New York State Education Department's executive deputy education commissioner, at a Board of Regents meeting in Albany on Dec. 15, 2014. Credit: Albany Times Union / Paul Buckowski

State education officials, citing a computer glitch, have ordered a recalculation of job-performance “growth” scores given to thousands of principals and schools based upon results of student testing last spring.

Officials described the impact of the computer error as small — affecting about one-half of 1 percent of more than 40,000 educators who received state performance ratings for the 2014-15 school year. In most cases, the error threw off the scores of those rated by no more than one point, they added.

Elizabeth Berlin, the executive deputy education commissioner, stated in a memo that the Education Department “immediately took steps to correct the data error and ensure no principal or teacher would be negatively impacted.” Newsday obtained a copy of the memo.

Berlin wrote that the data-processing error was made by American Institutes for Research, or AIR, a nonprofit Washington, D.C.-based agency that has handled statistical work on job evaluations of principals and teachers for New York State since 2011. Evaluations are based, in large part, on a formulaic application of student scores from state tests.

The vendor informed the department that it “inadvertently” left a number of student records out of its calculations for some principals and schools, Berlin wrote.

The deputy commissioner added that she had instructed the contractor to recalculate all state “growth” scores assigned to school principals in grades 9-12 statewide.

An AIR spokesman, Andrew Brownstein, had no immediate comment Monday.

Berlin’s memo was sent Friday to the state Board of Regents. The 17-member board sets statewide education policy and oversees the work of the Education Department and its top executives. The deputy commissioner said she would share the message with superintendents of local districts that same day, then inform affected school principals Monday.

“I know this has small impact. It offers another point to those that don’t trust this eval system and the impact it has on teachers,” said Roger Tilles of Great Neck, who represents Long Island on the Board of Regents. “It screams for a thorough reinvention of an understandable, transparent, student-oriented and fair system. I hope the Regents can lead to accomplish this.”

William Johnson, superintendent of Rockville Centre schools, said he saw the memo Friday, checked his district’s records and found that the computer error had little effect locally. Still, he said, broader issues are involved.

“Look, it’s just one more piece of information that suggests there are many potential flaws in the system,” said the schools chief, who is a former president of the New York State Council of School Superintendents. “It’s hard to make sense of it, and it’s hard to justify its continuance.”

The state’s job-evaluation system, established by law in 2010, generates “growth” scores for hundreds of thousands of teachers and principals statewide. Those scores are combined with other measures, including results of classroom observations, to come up with educators’ overall evaluations.

Use of computerized test results is particularly controversial, with many experts contending the scores are statistically unstable and subject to technical error. Teachers and parents have complained that the use of scores in evaluations puts too much pressure on students.

Those complaints escalated as the state rolled out implementation of tougher tests aligned with the Common Core academic standards, and students’ scores on state tests subsequently showed a dramatic decline.

In protests over the evaluation system and Common Core tests, more than 200,000 students in grades three through eight were pulled out of English and math exams in spring 2015 — the biggest boycott in the nation. The heaviest concentrations of student opt-outs occurred on Long Island, with more than 70,000 test refusals in the 124 public school districts across Nassau and Suffolk counties.

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