A New York court ruled Wednesday that a new teacher evaluation process can't rely so heavily on how students perform on a few state tests and most of the evaluations' criteria will have to be approved by local teachers' unions.
But the mixed judgment also upheld an expedited review process that could speed up the firing of bad teachers.
State Education Commissioner John King Jr. said the state plans to appeal.
The decision in Supreme Court in Albany County addresses a landmark teacher evaluation system worked out this spring by the state Board of Regents with the New York State United Teachers union. That plan, which would be used as a factor in granting tenure and in layoffs, was abruptly changed by the Regents after Gov. Andrew Cuomo interceded to further emphasize student test performance.
Wednesday's decision addressed a provision that requires 40 percent of a teacher's evaluation to be based on test scores. Half of that was to be based on state test scores and the other half determined by the local school district.
But the union had argued that a local school district could simply choose to use the same student improvement or decline on those same state exams, effectively doubling the value of the tests chosen by the state.
Under the court decision, a school district could still choose those same state tests but would have to cull the data to form a different evaluation so growth or decline in student performance wouldn't count twice. For example, a district could choose to count the number of students who reached a "proficient" grade. In addition, the local union would have to agree to the measure.
NYSUT President Richard C. Iannuzzi said the judge decided the criteria for the remaining 60 percent of the evaluation must be subject to negotiations with the unions, rather than set by the state, which placed a strong emphasis on classroom observation.
"This decision upholds the role of practitioners and the value of collective bargaining," Iannuzzi said. "We are pleased the judge has upheld the statute as NYSUT interprets it."
The state education commissioner said several of the judge's changes in the policy "would clearly undermine our ability to have an effective teacher in every classroom." He noted, however, that the judge's decision upholds the first use of student test scores to evaluate teachers, which has long been blocked in Albany.
A total score of 64 percent or less would draw a grade of "ineffective," making the test scores a big part of a teacher's evaluation. The state had set standards for other measures including classroom observation and efforts to keep up with the latest advances in the field. Those measures would be subject to union negotiations under the judge's order.
The teacher evaluation system was developed when the state won $700 million in federal aid under the competitive Race to the Top program. To win a share, states had to commit to several reforms sought by President Barack Obama's administration including a teacher evaluation system that could be used in terminations and tenure decisions rather than relying primarily on seniority.
Under the policy as adopted, a promising teacher could be deemed "ineffective" solely on students' poor performance on tests, the judge said.
"Multiple measures must be considered," wrote state Justice Michael Lynch. "The commissioner must allow for the 60-point category to have meaningful impact in the composite score, even in an instance of poor student achievement."
Lynch, however, also upheld the Board of Regents' measure to require a swifter process to fire inadequate teachers. That is aimed to avoid the long and costly process in effect for decades that often required school districts to keep a teacher on the payroll during an appeal while paying a substitute teacher to handle his or her class.
Iannuzzi said the decision will require that tenure decisions be based on merit rather than on an arbitrary decision by administrators. He said many teachers facing denial of tenure often resigned, masking the number of teachers refused the job protection.
NYSUT and the state Board of Regents worked out a plan over several months, but Cuomo recommended his own changes in May. Schools Chancellor Merryl Tisch immediately supported them, and the Board of Regents adopted Cuomo's changes at the next meeting.
The union then sued.