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Most LI districts' teacher evaluations skewed toward 'effective' ratings, analysis shows

New York Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo in Albany

New York Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo in Albany on Jan. 21, 2015. Credit: Newsday / J. Conrad Williams Jr.

The portion of teacher evaluations that local districts solely control is heavily weighted in most Long Island school districts toward ensuring teachers score high enough to get an overall "effective" rating, a Newsday analysis has found.

Principals' judgment of teacher performance in classroom observations and other subjective criteria, such as the quality of lesson plans, accounts for a maximum 60 percent of a teacher's overall 100-point evaluation. The other 40 points are determined by their students' performance on tests.

Under state law, teachers must get at least 75 points to be deemed "effective" on the job. The only higher category is "highly effective," and two lower categories are "developing" and "ineffective." Educators rated "developing" need improvement to meet standards and those rated "ineffective" for two consecutive years face the possibility of job loss.

Seventy of Long Island's 124 school districts use identical scoring ranges promoted by New York State United Teachers, the state's largest teachers union, for the classroom-observations component of job ratings, according to Newsday's review of evaluation plans approved by all the districts and posted on a state Education Department website.

Another 14 districts on the Island use scoring similar to the union-backed ranges.

These guidelines award 59 to 60 points to teachers rated "highly effective" and 57 to 58 points to teachers deemed "effective" on the classroom-observations component.

Under the union-endorsed scoring, teachers who earn 57 points are guaranteed overall "effective" ratings as long as they earn at least minimum passing marks on the remainder of the evaluation -- the 40 percent determined by students' test performance. Half of students' test performance comes from state standardized tests and the other half comes from exams selected by districts.

Here's an example of how the scoring can play out in a teacher's evaluation: The state allots a total of 18 to 34 points based on student test results for teachers rated "effective" on those portions of their evaluations. For a teacher with only 18 points to achieve a composite score of 75 -- and an overall job rating of "effective" -- he or she must get at least 57 points on the portion of the evaluation decided at the local level.

Statewide, 61 percent of districts outside New York City use the same NYSUT guidelines for the local component, according to the state Education Department. The agency's statewide count differs somewhat from Newsday's because it includes some revised district evaluation plans not yet posted on the department's website.

Results of the latest teacher evaluations, released by the Education Department in December, ignited a political fight. The ratings, which were preliminary figures for the 2013-14 school year, revealed a pattern that even many local school officials acknowledge is lopsided.

A total 97.5 percent of teachers statewide -- excluding New York City, which has its own evaluation system -- were rated "highly effective" or "effective." Only 0.4 percent were deemed "ineffective."

'Biased toward teachers'

In the weeks since, key state policymakers, who helped create the ratings system four years ago, have called for sweeping changes. Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo has been withering in his criticism. He proposed that the state take away from districts the control of setting score ranges for the classroom-observations component.

The governor this month charged that current evaluations are "biased toward the teachers."

"How can 98 percent of the teachers be effective if only 38 percent of the students are ready for college?" Cuomo said, referring to the state's latest figures on the academic preparation of high school graduates. "It can't be."

The governor wants the portion of teacher evaluations based on their students' performance on state standardized tests more than doubled -- from the current 20 percent to 50 percent.

Union representatives, meanwhile, have defended the weight given to classroom observations and other subjective criteria scored at the district level. They say it protects teachers from potentially harmful effects of a ratings system they contend is unproven and statistically unreliable.

"You could take potentially great teachers and, if they have bad ratings based on erroneous information, two years in a row, those teachers could be gone," said Brad Lindell, a school psychologist who is a union official in the Connetquot district. "That'll have a tremendous impact -- not just on individual teachers, but the entire school community."

Karen Magee, president of the 600,000-member NYSUT, has accused the governor of "doubling down" on use of standardized-test results to evaluate teachers despite experts' warnings that any such approach must safeguard against inaccurate results.

The American Statistical Association, the world's largest organization of statisticians, said in an advisory last spring that such rankings are statistically "unstable" -- that is, they lack consistency from year to year.

The Education Department, in its December report, found that 65 percent of more than 113,000 teachers rated in 2012-13 and 2013-14 received the same rating each year. Twenty-two percent got higher ratings the second year and 13 percent got lower ratings.

Of teachers rated "highly effective" in 2012-13, a small portion -- 0.1 percent -- were deemed "ineffective" the next year.

Local school superintendents have said the state pushed them into adopting evaluation plans, including the weighted scoring of classroom observations, in its rush to get a system in place and win federal Race to the Top grants.

Districts cite pressure

The districts faced tight deadlines for negotiating with local unions and submitting evaluation plans to the Education Department, many administrators noted. Systems that were slow to act were threatened with reductions in state aid.

As a result, district officials said, they felt intense pressure to approve scoring systems that local teachers unions would accept.

In addition, the evaluation system for the first time divided responsibility for scoring between the state and the local districts.

"The problem was created, not by the districts, but by the state Education Department," said Carol Burris, principal of South Side High School in Rockville Centre, who has written extensively on the state's evaluation system. "They created that lopsided system."

Michael Lonergan, superintendent of the Longwood district in central Brookhaven Town, said he and many colleagues would prefer a more rigorous system that gives younger teachers a clearer picture of how they need to improve.

Cuomo and other state officials ignored superintendents' warnings of a potentially skewed system, he said.

"We told them it was going to be this way," Lonergan recalled. "But with a gun to our heads, with a crippled economy, we negotiated in good faith to get the additional state aid."

Merryl Tisch, chancellor of the state Board of Regents, and staffers in the Education Department have pushed for an alternative system of scoring that allows for greater differentiation between individual teachers.

In 2013, then-Education Commissioner John B. King Jr. imposed such a system on New York City after municipal and union officials failed to agree on a plan. The state-imposed system awards 55 to 60 points for teachers deemed "highly effective" in classroom observations and other subjective criteria, and 45 to 54 points for those rated "effective."

One result is that only 9.2 percent of the city's teachers in 2013-14 got overall rankings of "highly effective," based both on classroom observations and test scores. For the rest of the state, where the NYSUT scoring guidelines were widely used, 58.2 percent of teachers were designated "highly effective."

Eight districts in Nassau and Suffolk counties have adopted the same scoring system for the classroom-observations component, or very similar systems, as the one used in the city.

One of those districts, Manhasset, which ranks among the highest achieving in the nation, applies its scoring system to as many as 10 mini-observations per teacher each year. Observations take about 15 minutes each, are unannounced and are scheduled at varying times during class periods.

Superintendent Charles Cardillo said each observation is followed by a "professional conversation" between the teacher and the evaluator, in which the goal is instructional improvement.

"We've taken it very seriously, in the sense of using it for everybody's benefit, including the students," Cardillo said.

State law requires two annual observations, including one that is unannounced. Observations typically cover an entire class period of about 45 minutes.

The governor's push for more rigorous evaluations gets high marks from taxpayer advocates and others who said they find it hard to believe that 98 percent of workers in any profession would be effective or better, and less than 1 percent ineffective.

Laurann Pandelakis, a retired school administrator who lives in Manhasset, said she is especially skeptical of including teachers' contacts with parents as part of their evaluation -- a practice in many districts. School administrators said they include this to encourage teachers to communicate with parents about their child's academic progress.

"Well, I think the governor is right when he says the system should change, because it's so subjective," said Pandelakis, who serves as a board member of Long Islanders for Educational Reform, a regional taxpayer group.

"Just because the teachers reach out to parents doesn't mean they're prepared to deliver a classroom lesson," Pandelakis added. "Why would anyone get credit for that?"

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