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New York In Limbo Over Tests in Evaluations

Last year, New York won a $700 million grant in the federal Race to the Top competition partly by securing an agreement with the state teachers' union on the format for teacher evaluations (20 percent state tests, 20 percent locally developed measures, and 60 percent observations or other subjective measures).

Now that it's come down to deciding what those measures are actually supposed to look like, some of that collaboration has hit the bricks.

The state Regents' board was supposed to put out regulations guiding this process, but its initial batch was rejected by Gov. Andrew Cuomo. That move was supported by the state's Democrats for Education Reform chapter, which had called the initial recommendations "squishy" and lobbied for stricter ones.

Gov. Cuomo made recommendations for a second go-around of the regulations, most of which were codified by the Regents. Under this version, the state will permit local districts to use the state tests as a local measure, which means that state standardized tests could make up to 40 percent of the evaluation.

(The Regents' vote was not a unanimous one, and the outliers referenced a letter sent by test experts urging the state not to write regulations that would put too much weight on the state tests.)

The New York State Union of Teachers is furious about the move, and has formally ending its collaborative relationship with the state education department. It's also threatened to sue over the process. And it also holds what may be a bit of a trump card: collective bargaining.

State law requires most aspects of evaluation to be bargained, and so presumably, local affiliates can simply refuse to codify evaluation plans they don't like. NYSUT president Richard Iannuzzi said as much in the union's internal newspaper: "We will use the collective-bargaining process to stand up against what would be a flawed overreliance on standardized tests."

The state/local test tension here has been long in coming. Although this is somewhat of a simplification, the general rule of thumb is that standardized tests allow for more reliable and comparable information than do measures that are district- or classroom-based, but are less closely tied to curricula and measure a somewhat narrow skill set.

There have been tensions over this quandary before. Nebraska had a longstanding feud with the federal Education Department, which didn't like the local tests the state was using to meet the No Child Left Behind law's annual-assessment requirements.

In New York City, officials want to have it both ways: The city wants to develop performance-based tasks to play into teacher evaluations, as The New York Times recently reported. But the United Federation of Teachers there says it hasn't been consulted on such measures.

What does all this mean? Unclear that this point, but generally speaking, districts that don't manage to get this crucial piece of their Race to the Top plans in place could jeopardize their cut of the funding, which would be redistributed elsewhere.

A dangerous game of chicken is emerging all over New York. Stay tuned for the fallout.

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