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U.S. judge: It’s ridiculous to judge teachers by test scores of students they don’t have, but it’s legal in Florida

“Justice? You get justice in the next world, in this world you have the law.”
― William Gaddis, A Frolic of His Own

A federal judge in Florida said that it is wildly unfair that the state evaluates many teachers on the standardized test scores of students they don’t have or subjects they don’t teach, but he ruled that can’t stop it because it is legal.

U.S. District Judge Mark Walker ruled in a lawsuit filed in 2013 by seven teachers and their unions which challenged the state’s educator evaluation system. The teachers said they had been or would be evaluated on the scores of students they haven’t taught and on subjects they don’t teach and that this violated the Equal Protection and Due Process Clause of the Constitution.

How does this work?  Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test exams are only for math and reading. Teachers in all other subjects are evaluated on school-wide averages for FCAT scores. Andy Ford, president of the Florida Education Association, said that only about 30 percent of Florida public school teachers teach both students and subjects for which there are FCAT tests.

Kim Cook, one of the plaintiffs in the lawsuit, was evaluated at Irby Elementary, a K-2 school where she works and was named Teacher of the Year in December 2012 . Her students were too young to take the Florida Comprehensive Assessment System (FCAT), but 40 percent of that evaluation was based on test scores of students at Alachua Elementary, a school into which Irby feeds, whom she never taught.  Plaintiff Catherine Boehme, a certified biology teacher at West Florida High School of Advanced Technology in Escambia County in 2011-12, argued that half of her evaluation was based on the scores of her students on the FCAT reading test. 

The evaluations are  done through a process called “value added” methods, in which test scores are plugged into a complicated formula that purports to calculate the “value” a teacher adds to a student’s achievement, separate from other influences on student achievement. Assessment experts say the system is seriously flawed and shouldn’t be used for high-stakes purposes, but many states are doing it anyway. In Florida, half of a teacher’s evaluation comes from these scores and the other half from administrative observation; the ratios are different in different states.

Walker agreed that the evaluation practice was unfair, but said the case was about the legality of the assessment system, according to a statement by the Florida Education Association :

“The unfairness of the evaluation system as implemented is not lost on this Court,” he wrote. “We have a teacher evaluation system in Florida that is supposed to measure the individual effectiveness of each teacher. But as the Plaintiffs have shown, the standards for evaluation differ significantly. FCAT teachers are being evaluated using an FCAT VAM that provides an individual measurement of a teacher’s contribution to student improvement in the subjects they teach.” He noted that the FCAT VAM has been applied to teachers whose students are tested in a subject that teacher does not teach and to teachers who are measured on students they have never taught, writing that “the FCAT VAM has been applied as a school-wide composite score that is the same for every teacher in the school. It does not contain any measure of student learning growth of the … teacher’s own students.”
In his ruling, Judge Walker indicated there were other problems.
“To make matters worse, the Legislature has mandated that teacher ratings be used to make important employment decisions such as pay, promotion, assignment, and retention,” Walker wrote. “Ratings affect a teacher’s professional reputation as well because they are made public — they have even been printed in the newspaper. Needless to say, this Court would be hard-pressed to find anyone who would find this evaluation system fair to non-FCAT teachers, let alone be willing to submit to a similar evaluation system.”
“This case, however, is not about the fairness of the evaluation system,” Walker wrote. “The standard of review is not whether the evaluation policies are good or bad, wise or unwise; but whether the evaluation policies are rational within the meaning of the law. The legal standard for invalidating legislative acts on substantive due process and equal protection grounds looks only to whether there is a conceivable rational basis to support them,” even though this basis might be “unsupported by evidence or empirical data.”

Ford said the union would keep fighting the system, and National Education Association President Dennis Van Roekel also commented, saying:

“Florida’s current evaluation system is unconscionable,” Van Roekel said. “It is deeply disappointing that during a week when we are supposed to be celebrating teachers, the district court determined that it could not halt the unreasonable evaluation of most teachers in Florida based on a measure of student performance that has nothing to do with the actual instruction the teachers provide.”

Late last month in Houston, seven high-achieving teachers, along with the Houston Federation of Teachers and the American Federation of Teachers, filed a lawsuit in federal court in Texas  alleging that the Houston Independent School District uses a badly flawed method of evaluating teacher effectiveness, known as the “Educational Value-Added Assessment System.” It, too, evaluates teachers on scores of students they don’t have.

The National Education Association is the largest teachers union in the country; the American Federation of Teachers is the second largest. Both unions have now sued over value-added assessment systems.