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Lawyer to judge: State's method of evaluating teacher performance is inaccurate, unreliable

Bruce Lederman, left, an attorney acting on behalf

Bruce Lederman, left, an attorney acting on behalf of his wife, Nassau County teacher Sheri Lederman, right, presents oral arguments to acting New York State Supreme Court Judge Roger D. McDonough in Albany, N.Y., Wednesday, Aug. 12, 2015. Lederman is suing the state Education Department for her poor student growth rating in her teacher evaluation score. Credit: Hans Pennink

The statistical model the state Education Department uses to evaluate teacher performance is inaccurate and unreliable, an attorney argued Wednesday in state Supreme Court in Albany, in a case believed to be the first of its kind challenging New York's law on educator job ratings.

"Teachers' evaluations varied greatly even though students' performance remained the same," said Bruce Lederman, a Manhattan real estate lawyer representing Great Neck fourth-grade teacher Sheri Lederman, 53, who is his wife.

Assistant Attorney General Colleen Galligan, representing the state, defended the Education Department's method as sound because it measures a student's performance against other students who have similar academic profiles.

"The growth score is rational," Galligan said, referring to the "student growth score," which is based on improvement in pupils' performance on state standardized tests in English and math administered each spring.

Growth scores make up 20 percent of overall evaluations for teachers, and are due to rise to as much as 50 percent of evaluations under an amendment to the law approved April 1 by Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo and state lawmakers. The remainder of teachers' performance is based on classroom observations and other subjective criteria.

The case -- an individual's challenge of the controversial and hotly debated evaluation law, not a class action pursued by a group -- was argued Wednesday before acting state Supreme Court Justice Roger D. McDonough in Albany.

In October, Sheri Lederman filed an Article 78 proceeding, which is used to appeal the decision of a state agency, against the Education Department after she received an "ineffective" job performance rating in the 2013-14 school year on the portion of her evaluation tied to student test scores.

The previous school year, Lederman was rated "effective." Both times, her students' performance on state standardized tests was virtually identical, her attorney said, with the children meeting or exceeding standards set by the state.

During the 90-minute session, McDonough asked if the state's use of what he called a "bell curve" to evaluate teachers means that a percentage of teachers will perform poorly regardless of their students' achievement.

Galligan eventually acknowledged that that is the case.

Sheri Lederman, in the lawsuit, challenges her growth score. In the 2012-13 school year, she received a score of 14 out of 20. The following school year, her growth score plummeted -- even though the performance of her students on state tests in both years was nearly the same -- and she received 1 out of 20.

The large swing in Lederman's growth score from one year to the next mirrored similar swings experienced by some school districts, which her attorney said makes no sense.

The judge, in addressing Bruce Lederman, asked him to identify an alternative to the current rating system.

"What would you use to measure growth?" the judge asked.

The attorney responded that students should be tested at the start of the school year, and again at the end of the academic year.

John Gross, a senior partner at Ingerman Smith, one of Long Island's largest law firms representing school districts, said that the Lederman case could upend the evaluation law, even though it questions job ratings that were completed before the law was modified in the spring.

"The petition raises what I think is the Achilles' heel in the entire system," Gross said in an interview. "And that's the validity -- and by that I mean the statistical validity -- of using a student assessment in rating teachers' performance."

Lederman is believed to be the first individual teacher to challenge the state's evaluation system in court. Separate class-action lawsuits filed by teachers unions in Rochester and Syracuse are pending.

Several academicians submitted affidavits supporting Lederman, including Carol Burris, the retired principal of South Side High School in Rockville Centre who has been a vocal opponent of the evaluation system and the state's test policies.

Burris also is a fellow of the Colorado-based National Education Policy Center, which produces peer-reviewed research on education policy issues. She looked at state data and found that the state determined that in the 2013-14 school year, there were many "ineffective" teachers in some of New York's best-performing schools, such as those in the Great Neck, Roslyn and Scarsdale districts.

Meanwhile, teachers in underperforming schools in Rochester and Buffalo were rated "effective" or "highly effective," according to Burris.

For example, only 4 percent of the students at Buffalo Elementary School of Technology were proficient in math and English, but 89 percent of the teachers were deemed to be "effective" and 11 percent "highly effective," Burris said her analysis showed.

At Great Neck's Elizabeth Mellick Baker Elementary School, where Sheri Lederman teaches, 74 percent of the students were proficient in math and 60 percent in English, but no teachers were rated "highly effective" and 57 percent were rated "effective."

McDonough may issue a ruling within 60 days, his clerk said.

With John Hildebrand

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