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OK awaited on evaluations tied to student attendance; Teacher waiver sought for those out over 20%

Buffalo school officials are hoping to get state approval this week for a teacher-evaluation plan that includes a controversial provision to exclude the performance of as many as half the students in some schools from affecting teachers' evaluations.

The performance of students absent for more than 20 percent of the year -- about seven weeks -- would not be counted toward a teacher's evaluation under the plan Buffalo has submitted to the state Education Department.

If the plan covering six low-performing schools is approved, the state would restore $9.3 million in federal school-improvement grants for them.

State officials would not comment on whether Buffalo's plan would be approved or on the district's provision to set a student attendance threshold.

But while the state remains mum, the debate over the attendance provision is bubbling under the surface.

Many teachers and union leaders say that such a provision is fair because factors such as student absenteeism are beyond a teacher's control.

"If a kid's not there, how can the teacher be held accountable for their test scores?" said Philip Rumore, president of the Buffalo Teachers Federation.

"If the goal is to accurately measure student growth, and also to accurately measure teacher effectiveness, then it makes sense to make allowances for those students who miss 30 or 40 days of school," said Carl Korn, a spokesman for New York State United Teachers.

But some educators say that such a provision is essentially a cop-out, letting schools off the hook for failing to engage students -- and possibly, in a worst-case scenario, providing an incentive for teachers to discourage struggling students from coming to school.

"Attendance is the responsibility of the district. It's not something that just happens," said Donald A. Ogilvie, superintendent of Erie 1 Board of Cooperative Educational Services. "To say that we are not going to factor in students with chronic absenteeism would give the appearance of the district performing better than it is. Therefore, there would be no incentive to change instructional practices or professional development."

A district study of student attendance in June 2011 found that at three high schools -- Bennett, Riverside and the Academy, Buffalo's alternative school -- at least half the students missed 20 percent or more of the year. At four other schools -- Lafayette, South Park, Burgard and East -- more than 40 percent of students missed that much school.

Advocates for educational reform say that an attendance provision in Buffalo's teacher-evaluation plan would take the most struggling students off the radar screen.

"This clause is bad policy and skirts accountability of adults at the expense of our highest-needs students in our highest-needs schools," said Hannya Boulos, director of Buffalo ReformED.

The locally determined measure of student growth will count for 20 percent of a teacher's overall evaluation.

Sources in Buffalo and other districts said that state officials have indicated privately that they would not approve any teacher-evaluation plans that include what's referred to by some as a "carve-out" for student attendance.

Carrie Remis, director of the Parent Power Project in Rochester, said state Education Department officials in numerous conversations have made it clear they would not approve any carve-outs.

"We believe that [Education] Commissioner [John B.] King believes every student in public schools should be counted. He won't support cherry-picking student data," said Carrie Remis, director of the Parent Power Project reform group in Rochester.

But exactly where state leaders stand on this issue remains unclear, because they will not publicly state a position.

Jonathan Burman, a spokesman for the Education Department, said: "Each plan has to be reviewed individually. There isn't a general prohibition or acceptance of [a provision for student attendance]."

Similarly, Matt Wing, a spokesman for Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo -- who, in the last few weeks, has positioned himself as a leader on implementing teacher evaluations based partly on student achievement -- said the governor is not taking a position on the issue.

Cuomo will "evaluate specific issues" once all districts in the state -- not just those receiving school-improvement grants -- are required to submit revised evaluation plans for 2012-13, Wing said.

The Rochester school district, in an initial agreement with the teachers union in December, included a student attendance provision in the plan it submitted to the state in early January. But in the version the state finally approved last week, that provision had been removed.

Some people took that as an indication that King was standing firm against carve-outs for student attendance.

But union leaders, both locally and at the state level, say they are not aware of any state prohibition against them.

"It is permissible for local unions and school districts to make allowances for excessive student absences," said Korn, the NYSUT spokesman.

Not making an allowance for student attendance, Rumore said, "would be educationally unsound and absurd."

Buffalo is one of 10 districts in the state receiving federal school-improvement grant funds in 2011-12 for some low-performing schools. In their grant applications, the districts agreed to implement teacher and principal evaluations at those schools by Dec. 31, 2011.

In early January, King suspended the grant funds to all 10 districts, saying that none of them had evaluation plans he deemed acceptable.

Buffalo and most of the other districts have since submitted a series of revised teacher evaluation plans.

Last week, King announced that five of them had submitted adequate plans and that he was restoring their grant funds. Among them was Rochester, whose revised plan does not include a provision for student attendance.

In the latest version of Buffalo's plan, a provision for student attendance is included in one sentence of the glossary to the district's plan for classroom observations of teachers: "When incorporating student growth and performance into the evaluation of a teacher, scores on assessments shall count only for those students whose attendance in the class/course was at least 80 percent of the school year or course duration."

High-ranking administrators in the Buffalo district have been saying for the last week that they expect state approval of their plan any day, pending one or two "tweaks."

Interim Superintendent Amber M. Dixon declined to discuss the attendance provision until the state issues a decision on Buffalo's plan.

"We are still in active discussions with NYSED on the latest submitted plan," she said. "I will comment once there is a final approved document."