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New York lawmakers end mandate tying teacher evaluations to student test scores

ALBANY – The mandatory linking of teacher evaluations to student performance on certain state tests, once a priority for Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo and many lawmakers, was formally ended Wednesday by the State Legislature.

The measure, a victory for the state’s big teachers union, restores “local control” for devising systems to evaluate teachers and school principals instead of a mandatory, top-down approach from Albany using state-created tests.

The legislation, which died in the Senate last year under Republican Party control, on Wednesday passed with every Democratic and Republican Senate member present. It also sailed through the Assembly.

Sen. Shelley Mayer, a Yonkers Democrat and the new chairwoman of the Senate’s education committee, said the measure “is righting a serious wrong."

The bill now heads to Cuomo for his all-but-certain signature. “It’s the same language as what’s in the governor’s budget," noted Cuomo spokeswoman Caitlin Girouard. The governor proposed his 2019 budget last week.

The linkage between student performance on standardized test scores and job performance evaluations of teachers was put on hold by the Board of Regents, the state’s main education policy-setting panel, via a moratorium that expires in July.

The legislation ends a requirement passed in 2015 that certain tests must be used in teacher evaluations, leaving it now up to local school districts and teachers to come up with evaluation systems.

“Three years ago, there was much stress for teachers, administrators and parents across New York State involving the educator evaluation system because of its punitive nature that did not foster opportunities for continuous opportunities for our teachers," said Emily DeSantis, a spokeswoman for the state Education Department.

Partly as a result of that requirement, large numbers of parents refused to let their children take the standardized tests on English language arts and mathematics in grades three through eight.

The issue became a key campaign issue for the New York State United Teachers union in races last year against Senate Republicans. The Democratic-controlled Assembly last year voted to undo the evaluation system it helped create, but Senate Republicans inserted a poison pill for Democrats – provisions pushed by charter schools – that killed the issue for 2018.

Then-Senate Majority Leader John Flanagan, a Suffolk County Republican, last year said he counted NYSUT as among the “forces of evil."

The comment, and the death of the decoupling legislation, energized NYSUT to spend heavily to help Democrats take control of the Senate. Today, the Democratic conference has 39 members in the 63-member chamber, and Democrats during last year’s fall campaign made ending the teacher evaluation system a priority if they won the Senate.

Facing intense pressure from teachers, parents and Democratic lawmakers, the Regents loosened some student testing requirements.

NYSUT President Andy Pallotta wasted no time in declaring victory Wednesday.

“After some lawmakers turned their backs on New York teachers at the end of the last legislative session, our members stood up, raised our voices and sent them packing," he said of Republicans in the Senate.

“We look forward to making sure this bill is signed into law immediately and we will continue to advocate for a meaningful assessment system for New York students that will measure progress more accurately and address the concerns raised by teachers and parents alike,’’ the union leader said.

The legislation passed Wednesday states state-created or administered tests “shall not be required to be utilized in any matter to determine a teacher or principal evaluation."

It directs the state education commissioner to write new regulations and demands that assessments of teachers be devised by school districts that abide by collective bargaining agreements with teachers.

“Allowing school districts and teachers, who know their students best, the ability to negotiate whether they would like to use the standardized tests in teacher or principal evaluations will ensure that a more fair and effective evaluation system will be established," according to a legislative memo accompanying the bill.

Robert Lowry, deputy director of the New York State Council of School Superintendents, said that the legislation does not do away with a requirement that part of a teacher’s evaluation be based on some measure of student performance.

“What the bill says is that the use of state tests is not mandated. They're optional. And also that districts and unions would negotiate whatever student performance is used," Lowry said.

That could include tests developed by private vendors, tests administered at the beginning and end of school years, or even some use of the ELA and math state tests in grades three through eight.

The superintendents group issued a “memo of concern” about the bill passed Wednesday, noting there are some possibilities – if agreed by districts and unions – for more evaluations linked to student tests.

“Everyone agrees the current system is a mess," Lowry said. But his group hopes there will now be time for the Regents, education department and various stakeholders to move deliberately in the creation of rules that might guide teacher evaluations.

“This law is unique in the wide effect of it. It literally affects every class in every school in every district so it affects every kid," Lowry said. "We should take the time to get it right … We could do worse than this, but we could also do better."

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