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Regents revisit teacher evaluations

Kathleen M. Cashin, left, who represents Brooklyn on

Kathleen M. Cashin, left, who represents Brooklyn on the state Board of Regents, listens to state Education Commissioner MaryEllen Elia as members of the panel discuss proposed regulations of the revised teacher evaluation system at their meeting Monday in Albany. Credit: Hans Pennink/Hans Pennink

ALBANY — The thorny issue of teachers’ job ratings resurfaced Monday as the state Board of Regents considered how to implement a new evaluation system that puts much more responsibility in the hands of the 650-plus public school districts across New York.

Revamping of teacher-performance ratings is required because of the change in state law approved by the Legislature and signed by Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo on April 12. The amendments were prompted in large part by massive student boycotts of state tests that swept across the state during the past five years, with Nassau and Suffolk counties at the revolt's epicenter.

State Education Department officials on Monday set no timeline for adoption by the Regents of new regulations putting the amended law into effect. However, during a presentation at the Regents' monthly meeting, officials did outline steps to be taken in the months to come. 

Local districts will continue operating under the old system until current teacher contracts expire and new evaluation programs are agreed upon locally, they noted.

“This will give districts a chance to slow down, consider their current plans, decide what’s working and not working,” said Alex Trikalinos, a state Education Department official who coordinates evaluation programs.

Prime among the changes is elimination of a requirement that at least 50 percent of public schoolteachers’ ratings be based on the scores of their students on state tests, including English Language Arts and math exams given each spring in grades three through eight. It was those exams that sparked the opt-out movement.

Instead, the law requires local districts to negotiate with their teacher unions to choose the exams to be used in judging the educators' performance. As in the past, about half of job ratings will be based on test scores, and about half on classroom observations by district supervisors and outside experts.

Districts, with unions’ agreement, can elect to continue using either state tests or assessments of their own choosing. An example would be standardized tests produced by commercial firms or nonprofit educational organizations.

The Education Department, under law, will have the responsibility for listing non-state exams that can be used for this purpose. No date was announced Monday for the completion of a list.

The amended law also repeals the use of state “growth” scores — numerical measures of students’ improvement on tests that were generated by a complex computerized formula and widely unpopular with teachers. Many complained their own supervisors couldn’t explain how the scores had been calculated.

As a substitute, districts will assign all teachers Student Learning Objectives, or SLOs — that is, goals for student progress. This also will be negotiated with unions. SLOs currently are in more limited use with teachers who did not receive growth scores.

The evaluation law covers more than 250,000 teachers and principals statewide, including more than 40,000 on Long Island.

Several Regents voiced concern Monday that expanded use of Student Learning Objectives might lead to an academic “free for all” in which some teachers set goals for certain students that are too low.

“I want to make sure that there’s not a way within the class to lower expectations,” said Regents Vice Chancellor Andrew Brown, a Rochester attorney. “Without that, we might have a tracking system. That scares me.”

Parent leaders of the boycott movement in the Nassau-Suffolk region and across the state have objected that the ratings system, even as revised, continues to put undue pressure on students and teachers because it still relies largely on results from standardized exams — even though the tests will be of districts' choosing.

"This may actually make it worse,” said Diane Venezia Livingston, a founder of Port Washington’s boycott moment, referring to the amended law’s potential impact. “It could result in double-testing rather than less testing. It is not a win for kids.”

Livingston is a mother of three and founder of Port Washington Advocates for Public Education, a group that opposes what it considers misuse of standardized tests.

In this spring's test season for grades three through eight, more than 47 percent of eligible students opted out of both the ELA and the math exams in Long Island districts that responded to Newsday surveys. The boycott level on the Island has remained consistent since spring 2015, according to the newspaper's annual surveys.

Last year, the most recent for which state Education Department data are available, the statewide test-refusal rate was 18 percent.

Jolene DiBrango, executive vice president of New York State United Teachers, who attended the Regents meeting Monday, voiced optimism that the change in the law would result in concrete improvement in the evaluations.

“We’re really pleased to see that the student performance portion will be locally negotiated,” DiBrango said.

In reference to concerns expressed over potential misuse of SLOs, she noted that such measures have been widely used in the past. Teachers, she said, had always set high standards, “and that won’t change.”

DiBrango and other education leaders also contend that the change in law may not drastically alter the way teachers already are evaluated.

These leaders note that many districts set group goals for teachers — for example, by rating everyone on the instructional staff according to whether or not student scores improve on Regents exams taken in high schools. Many districts seem likely to retain such systems, experts said.end trim/BH

The wrangling over teacher evaluations in recent years dates to 2015, when Cuomo won adoption of legislation that provided extra state aid to schools and also toughened the requirements for job ratings.

That, coupled with parent and teacher anger over the 2012 rollout of state ELA and math tests revised to reflect the Common Core academic standards, led to a mushrooming of exam boycotts.

Ultimately, the Regents in December 2015 retreated on the issue of job ratings, approving an emergency measure that set a four-year moratorium on the teacher evaluations. That freeze, which the Regents later extended, is set to end in June 2020. 

Teacher evaluations: A timeline

June 2010: The Legislature passes sweeping education reform legislation pushed by Gov. David A. Paterson that creates a new statewide evaluation system for teachers and principals that takes into account student achievement on state tests. Before its passage, New York had banned the use of student test scores in rating teachers. The law was aimed at strengthening New York’s bid for federal Race to the Top funding.

January 2015: Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo, in his State of the State speech, says he will put forward legislation that ties state financial aid to schools with a revamp of the system of evaluating teachers and principals. At the time, job ratings were based 60 percent on classroom observations and other measures, 20 percent on state “growth” scores from students’ test performance and 20 percent on an exam chosen by local districts.

April 2015: The Legislature passes and Cuomo signs the Education Transformation Act, which gives student test results and classroom observations roughly 50-50 weight in measuring teachers’ effectiveness.

April/May 2015: Student boycotts of state English Language Arts and math tests given in grades three through eight rise dramatically across the state, fed by educators’ outrage over the new evaluation law. The exam opt-outs had started on Long Island in spring 2013 with parent and teacher opposition to exams aligned with the Common Core academic standards.

June 2015: A split Board of Regents, after hours of tense debate, approves regulations increasing the weight given to student test scores in teachers’ and principals’ performance evaluations. In a rare move, Regents who are opposed call for a delay in the rollout of tougher teacher evaluations until September 2016.

December 2015: A Cuomo-appointed advisory panel recommends that the state temporarily drop the use of test scores in deciding whether teachers should keep their jobs. Within days, the Regents approve a four-year moratorium on use of student scores on state standardized tests to evaluate job performances by teachers and principals. The emergency regulation, which passed overwhelmingly, is to last until July 2019.

February 2018: Tempers flare at a Regents meeting over the evaluation issue after Commissioner MaryEllen Elia confirms the moratorium could be extended past its expiration. Opponents of the evaluation system had hoped it would be repealed by the time the moratorium ended. Elia says test boycotts, driven in part by opposition to the linkage of student test scores to job ratings, have “caused upset across the entire education world in New York State.”

November 2018: Leaders of the Regents say they will push for a one-year extension of the moratorium temporarily banning use of student test scores in teacher job ratings. That pushes the end date of the freeze to June 2020.

January 2019: The Legislature approves a bill amending the evaluation law and ending the mandate tying teacher evaluations to student scores on state tests. The measure, subsequently signed by Cuomo, provides that 50 percent of a teacher’s performance will be linked to some measure of student performance, subject to negotiations between individual school districts and local teacher unions.

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