Teaching Profession

Florida Unions Sue Over Test-Score-Based Evaluations

By Stephen Sawchuk — April 16, 2013 4 min read
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The National Education Association, on behalf of three affiliates of its Florida chapter and seven teachers, sued the state education department this morning, contending that the formula used to assess some teachers in the Sunshine State violates their constitutional rights.

The groups seek an injunction against a recent state law that outlines teacher-evaluation procedures, and against three districts’ specific implementation policies. If granted, it would essentially throw out evaluation results from the 2011-12 year, and for future years until a new system can be devised.

The lawsuit, filed in U.S. district court in Florida, appears to be the first example nationwide of a teachers’ union suing over the specific metric used to calculate teachers’ contribution to student learning. Debates abound about such “value added” formulas, both on their technical properties, and how states are choosing to apply them.

“The state approved formula for measuring student growth on [the state standardized tests] is being stretched far beyond the limited purposes for which it was designed,” the suit argues.

Florida education Commissioner Tony Bennett is named as a defendant in the suit, in addition to the state school board and the school boards of Florida’s Hernando, Escambia, and Alachua counties.

NEA President Dennis Van Roekel, speaking during a conference call, intimated that the action wouldn’t be the union’s last word on the subject. Teachers across the nation are “fed up with flawed evaluation systems being pushed by politicians and corporate education reformers in school districts across the country,” he said.

New Law

In 2011, Florida lawmakers passed a measure overhauling teacher evaluations. The law requires all teachers to be judged in part on the progress of their students. This growth formula was developed for teachers in those subjects in which the state administers standardized tests: grades 4-8 in math and 4-10 in reading.

But because only a fraction of teachers are teaching in those subjects, the suit contends, districts, with state approval, have essentially fudged the formula for other teachers—for example, by using a schoolwide growth score for such teachers, or by rating them based on scores on a test in another subject only tangentially related to their field, if at all.

As a result, the unions allege that the seven teachers were evaluated based on students they don’t teach or in subjects they don’t teach. For example, Kim Cook, who teaches in grades 1 and 2 at W.W. Irby Elementary School in Alachua County, was judged partly on the performance of 4th and 5th graders in a separate school to which Irby Elementary feeds. Another plaintiff, Bethann Brooks, teaches health in grades 10-12, but had half her evaluation based on the test results in reading for students in grades 9 and 10 in her school, most of whom she didn’t teach.

The law doesn’t require school districts to develop and implement tests in those measures until 2014-15, the lawsuit notes. Yet under it, evaluation results will be counted towards decisions on termination, tenure, and as of July 2014, pay.

The lawsuit alleges that teachers’ constitutional rights to due process and equal protection under the Fourteenth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution have been violated.

A bill pending in the Florida legislature would require teachers to be evaluated only on the progress of their own students, but Florida Education Association officials said it is not sufficiently detailed enough.

The suit is the second that the FEA has filed against the 2011 evaluation law. It filed an earlier suit in September 2011 alleging that the law infringes on teachers’ collective bargaining rights. That complaint is still in process.

Nearly 97 percent of teachers got good reviews in the first year the system was in place, 2011-12, some because administrators changed the levels to increase ratings for teachers. But NEA officials said that doesn’t change the substance of the complaint.

“This case is about the fundamental right of individuals to be judged on their own conduct, not on the conduct of others,” said NEA General Counsel Alice O’Brien.

The Florida education department was developing a statement on the lawsuit, a spokesman said.

National Implications

Many states are now facing the challenges of new laws that base evaluations partly on student achievement, given that a majority of teachers teach in “nontested” subjects. Controversy has arisen elsewhere: Tennessee’s use of a growth measure based on the performance of the school as a whole for teachers in “nontested” subjects caused much consternation among educators, leading an independent panel to recommend reducing its weight in teacher evaluations.

Meanwhile, other states putting new evaluation systems in place are using a variety of methods to assess teachers of such subjects as arts, physical education, health, science and other electives. They include developing tests in conjunction with teachers, issuing RFPs for new standardized tests, and allowing teachers to set individual goals for student achievement with their principals.

It was unclear whether similar lawsuits might be filed in other states, but Mr. Van Roekel suggested that the Florida action would not be the last.

“There will be others,” he said. “This is the first.”

A version of this article appeared in the April 24, 2013 edition of Education Week

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