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Board of Regents to tackle teacher ratings

School superintendent Dr. Lorna Lewis, an expert on

School superintendent Dr. Lorna Lewis, an expert on evaluating teachers, at East Williston School district office. (March 9, 2011) Credit: Newsday/J. Conrad Williams Jr.

A state advisory panel report warns that new efforts to rate teachers based on student test scores -- if mishandled -- "will result in frustration, loss of faith and set the system up for failure."

The question of how exactly to rank teachers and principals, in categories ranging from "highly effective" to "ineffective," will be tackled Monday by state education officials meeting in Albany.

The advisory task force says it's willing to accept the state plans to expand evaluations based on test scores to high school teachers. But the group recommends that the state take a cautious approach -- for example, by making sure that those evaluating teachers' work are well-trained. Panelists also caution against using scores from high school Regents exams in evaluations, since such tests are administered to individual students only once.

Under state law, the ratings will be launched in July, with 20 percent of teachers' evaluations in grades 4-8 based on students' improved scores on state tests.

The task of measuring students' academic growth during the course of a school year in a way that is statistically valid could prove one of the biggest challenges of the new system. Misgivings about this and other issues are reflected in the report by the 63-member state task force of school superintendents, teachers and others.

The report is to be released at tomorrow's meeting of the state Board of Regents. Newsday obtained a draft copy late last week.

While expressing hope that the state will lead the way in improving teaching quality, the report also questions whether school districts with limited money will be able to establish effective evaluation systems locally within the coming year. Last week, Albany lawmakers cut school aid by $1.3 billion statewide, including $206 million on Long Island.

"The Task Force is highly concerned with the ability of districts to implement the system with fidelity in the first year," the draft report concludes. "Under even the best of circumstances, the implementation of new policies can be challenging, and this year we do not have the best of circumstances."

The report also notes that the new system will mean "life-changing consequences" for educators. Under law, teachers rated ineffective two years running may be charged with incompetence and fired after expedited hearings.

Albany's efforts to adopt more rigorous evaluations of teachers helped the state last summer in winning nearly $700 million in federal "Race to the Top" school-improvement money. For that reason, many local school officials expect quick adoption of regulations putting the new system into effect, whatever the risks involved.

"The train has already left the station," said Lorna Lewis, superintendent of East Williston schools. She chairs a curriculum committee for the Nassau County Council of School Superintendents.

In January, the council sent a letter to the state asking, among other things, that the ratings system be carefully designed, so as not to penalize teachers in schools with high student mobility rates.

The new law requires that students' academic growth be measured at two points in the year -- a potential problem in schools where students frequently transfer in and out. The council suggested that the state set cutoff dates, so that students entering a school after the cutoff would not be included in a teacher's "growth" statistics.

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