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Appeals Court Upholds Florida Law on Using Test Scores in Teacher Evaluations

A federal appeals court has upheld a Florida law that requires teacher performance evaluations to be based in part on student test scores.

A three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 11th Circuit, in Atlanta, on July 7 unanimously upheld the Student Success Act, a 2011 measure that requires the Florida commissioner of education to develop a formula to measure individual student learning growth on the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test, or FCAT.

The statute provided that 50 percent of a teacher's evaluation be based on such a formula. The commissioner developed such a "value-added" formula that was based in part on a student's scores on the FCAT, which tests English and mathematics. The law required school districts to weigh student test scores for teachers of English and math beginning in the 2011-12 school year. It also called on them to select a similar formula for most teachers of subjects not tested by the FCAT.

Several teachers and three local teachers' unions sued the state and three districts—the Alchua, Escambia, and Hernando county school systems—challenging the law and its implementation on 14th Amendment due process and equal protection grounds. The suit argued that the policies arbitrarily and illogically evaluated teachers based either on the test scores of students or subjects they did not teach.

A federal district court ruled for the defendants, saying the state had a rational basis for adopting the law. The 11th Circuit appeals court, in its decision in Cook v. Chartrand, adopted similar reasoning for upholding the law.

While the FCAT "value-added model" may not be "the best model—or may even be a poor one—for achieving" the goal of improving student academic performance by improving the quality of instruction and other services, "it is still rational to think that the challenged evaluation procedures would advance the government's stated purpose," the court said.

The court took note of the fact that Florida has since amended the Student Success Act to give districts more flexibility in developing ways to measure student performance in subjects and grades not covered by state tests. The court said the changes did not make the lawsuit moot because the revised law "would still allow the districts to evaluate teachers of non-FCAT classes using the FCAT [value-added model]."

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