Teaching Profession

NEA Lawsuit in Tennessee Challenges Evaluations of ‘Non-Tested’ Teachers

By Anthony Rebora — February 05, 2015 3 min read
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The National Education Association’s Tennessee affiliate today filed a new lawsuit challenging the state’s use of students’ standardized test scores in teacher evaluations, this time focusing on the system’s effects on educators in “non-tested” grades and subjects.

Under Tennessee’s much-watched evaluation system, unrolled in the 2011-12 school year, student test scores are factored into teachers’ overall results through a statistical framework known as the Tennessee Value-Added Assessment System that seeks to isolate educators’ impact on student-achievement growth.

Teachers in tested grades and subjects receive individual value-added scores that count for 35 percent of their overall evaluation score. However, teachers in non-tested grades and subjects—more than half the educators in the state, according to the TEA—are given composite, school-based value-added scores (generally derived from students’ scores in the tested subjects) that make up 25 percent of their evaluations.

The TEA’s suit, which will be litigated by the National Education Association, names as co-plaintiffs two educators in non-tested subjects—a middle school visual arts teacher and a middle school physical education teacher—who say their evaluation scores dropped as a result of their school-based value-added scores. On account of their evaluation outcomes, the TEA says, one of the plaintiffs was denied a bonus, while the other lost her eligibility to be recommended for tenure.

Teachers in non-tested grades and subjects, the suit argues, are “being evaluated substantially based on school-level TVAAS estimates that do not reflect the contributions of these teachers to their students’ learning in the courses they teach. ... In fact, these school-level TVAAS estimates provide no indication at all as to the quality of the instruction of a particular teacher.”

The TEA contends that the system violates the educators’ due process and equal protection rights under the U.S. Constitution.

In response to the suit, Tennessee’s top education official defended the state’s use of student-growth measures to evaluate teachers.

“Teachers are getting more feedback than ever to help improve their classroom instruction, and ultimately, student learning,” Candice McQueen, the state’s recently appointed commissioner of education, said in an emailed statement. “We see evidence that this is working; Tennessee students are the fastest improving in the nation. The department remains committed to providing meaningful feedback to teachers based, in part, on student growth.”

However, Douglas N. Harris, an associate professor of economics at Tulane University in New Orleans who has studied teacher-evaluation approaches, said that the issue of scoring teachers in non-tested grades and subjects remains a key sticking point for state evaluation systems that seek to incorporate student-achievement growth.

In particular, Harris said, use of school-wide value-added scores is widely regarded as “blatantly unfair” because educators are seen as “being evaluated based on the performance of other teachers.”

“On this issue, the union has a very good point,” he said.

The TEA has filed two previous suits challenging Tennessee’s use of value-added scores in its evaluation system—one relating to a science teacher who argued his score was based on only a small percentage of his students and another stemming from an alternative-school teacher’s claim that her score was miscalculated.

Last year, a federal judge in Florida ruled against the NEA in a case that also centered on the use of test scores to evaluate teachers in non-tested grades and subjects. (Despite the ruling, however, the judge allowed that he thought the state’s approach was unfair.) The union has filed an appeal in that case.

The NEA has also filed a suit challenging aspects of New Mexico’s teacher-evaluation system.

A version of this news article first appeared in the Teacher Beat blog.