Accountability Opinion

A Dark Day in New York State

By Mary-Ellen Phelps Deily — May 31, 2011 4 min read
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Dear Deborah,

May 16, 2011, was a dark day in the history of New York state. On that date, the New York State Board of Regents, once known for careful deliberation and the integrity of its standards, approved a plan to evaluate teachers by their students’ test scores. Students’ scores will count for as much as 40 percent of teachers’ evaluations. This plan has neither research nor evidence to support it. The Regents are making a gamble with the future of educational quality and with the lives of the state’s teachers.

To be fair, they did it for the money. New York won a Race to the Top award, so officials obliged themselves to judge teachers by test scores, but their proposal said that the scores would count for only 20 percent when judging a teacher’s worth. Now the Regents, allegedly in response to a request by Gov. Andrew Cuomo, raised the percentage to up to 40 percent, to be composed of state and local tests, or state tests only. I say “allegedly” because Gov. Cuomo has heretofore not been known for his interest in technical issues related to teacher evaluation.

Like other states, New York now will operate on the assumption that student scores are a valid measure of teacher quality. They are not. The Regents chose to ignore a letter from 10 of the nation’s leading assessment experts, urging them not to go down this path. The testing experts summarized research showing that the measures would be inaccurate and unstable. Many teachers will be mislabeled and their careers ruined because of the Regents’ thoughtless decision.

Three of the state’s 17 Regents voted against the proposal. Two are experienced educators, Dr. Kathleen Cashin representing Brooklyn and Dr. Betty Rosa representing the Bronx. The third, Roger Tilles, a lawyer (and former member of the Michigan state board of education) represents Long Island. Tilles explained his opposition to the policy in a newspaper article.

Tilles pointed out that: “Our current state tests are not designed to measure growth from year to year, and we are years away from having valid state tests that are.” But that didn’t stop the Regents. If ratings are made public, he warned: “Districts will have to figure out how to offer professional development for teachers deemed ineffective while leaving them in the classroom—all the while, understandably, parents will be raising the roof if their sons or daughters are assigned to an “ineffective” or “developing” teacher. The stigma attached to a teacher who may be inappropriately labeled based upon an invalid use of inappropriate tests will be a boon for the legal community. Student learning scores should lead to interventions for students and professional development for teachers—but the proposed system isn’t designed to lead to improved instruction because it has no diagnostic aspect.”

A highly accomplished principal, Carol Burris, wrote to explain that this policy would damage education and incentivize teachers to avoid students who might drag down their “effectiveness” ratings. She wrote:

The biggest losers of these new evaluation policies, in New York and beyond, will be students. A teacher will look at each student as potential 'value added' or 'value decreased'—that is, as a potential increase or decrease on the score the teacher is ultimately assigned. With his or her job dependent on those students' test scores, this teacher will now have a set of incentives and disincentives very different than in the past. For example, I was a Spanish teacher. If I were still teaching today and faced with evaluation by test scores, I would abandon the annual trip to the Goya exhibit and I would cut out the projects that furthered student growth and enriched their understandings of language and culture. How could I dare spend the time? Everything that I would do from September to June would be preparation for a test of dubious value so that I could keep my job. "For teachers with young families and college debt to pay, the student who comes late to class or who does not do his homework will become a threat to her job security. The troubled child who transfers in will be nervously welcomed. The student with disruptive behavior will be a threat to the scores of the rest of the class instead of a person to be understood and whose needs should be met. The score, not the well-educated child, will become the focus. "The pressures will build to engage in exclusionary and non-educative practices designed to improve numbers at the cost of learning. Instead of pushing students to take physics and advanced algebra, schools will discourage weaker students so that the aggregate score for the teacher and principal does not go down. "This isn't an argument against holding teachers accountable; it's an argument against holding them accountable for the wrong things and in a way that will result in very negative unintended consequences. I wouldn't want to teach in that environment, and I wouldn't want my children or the students at my school to try to learn in that environment; but the incentives for teachers to teach to the test and teach to the best will be unavoidable."

A group of New York state Teachers of the Year wrote the Regents in opposition to the prospect of tying a teacher’s fate to one score on one day in children’s lives. They warned that: “These changes, while politically popular, will neither improve schools nor increase student learning; rather, they will cause tangible harm to students and teachers alike.”

New York City plans to spend about $60 million of its Race to the Top winnings to create many more assessments, not only in reading and math, but in social studies, science, and possibly other subjects as well. At a time when the city is preparing to lay off 4,000 teachers and to let go another 2,000 by attrition, it would seem that more tests are not the best answer to the problems of the district. But never mind, more tests there will be, because New York City for the past nine years has made a fetish of testing. The students will take the tests, said The New York Times, but the purpose of the tests is to grade the teachers.

I recently met with the principal of an elementary school in Brooklyn who hates the city’s teacher data reports. She told me about an excellent teacher of a gifted class whose students started the year at the very top, near perfect. At the end of the year, their scores had dropped 5/100 of a percentage point. Given the margin of error on all tests, this is a meaningless difference, but the “drop” in the scores caused the teacher to be ranked in the bottom sixth percentile of all teachers.

All of this is outrageous and mean-spirited and harmful to teachers, students, and the quality of education. Educators know it, but our New York State Regents, with only three honorable exceptions, are indifferent to research, evidence, and testimony from highly experienced and successful principals and teachers. Indifferent as well to the harm done to those in their care, both students and teachers: These are not the Regents who were once held in high esteem. I suppose they might say in their defense that everyone else is doing it; or that the federal government thinks it’s a good idea; but those are not good reasons to do wrong.

If we see the Regents set numerical goals for the full range of professions that they supervise, then we will know that they are even-handed. The Regents set licensing standards for 48 professions, including acupuncturists, architects, dentists, dieticians, massage therapists, midwives, nurses, pharmacists, podiatrists, social workers, and veterinarians. Will the Regents adopt measures for them too, based on the behavior of their clients? If the Regents intend only to single out teachers, to impose upon teachers a scheme that is fraught with error, then it’s just piling on and joining in the national mood of whack-a-teacher.


The opinions expressed in Bridging Differences are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.