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Group Behind Vergara Trains Sights on Teacher Evaluations

Students Matter, the California-based nonprofit that was behind Vergara v. California, suffered a setback last week in its quest to overhaul teacher tenure and other job protections, when the California supreme court upheld a lower court's ruling rejecting key contentions of the suit. But as I mentioned in an article on the Vergara aftermath last week, the group has other irons on the fire. In fact, a superior court judge is now reviewing a separate, less publicized Students Matter-backed case that claims districts in California are breaking the law when they refuse to use test scores in teacher evaluations.

The lawsuit, Doe v. Antioch, targets 13 school districts that it claims are violating the Stull Act, a decades-old state law that, in the plaintiffs' view, requires districts to judge a teacher's job performance at least in part on standardized student-test scores. The districts cited, including Antioch Unified, Chino Valley Unified, and Inglewood Unified, serve about 250,000 students.The case was filed on behalf of four parents and two students, each from a different district in the state. 

As a companion to Vergara, the suit aims to bring into play another contentious area of teacher-accountability policy—teacher evaluations. According to the National Council on Teacher Quality , a D.C.-based advocacy group that tracks teacher policies, 39 states and the District of Columbia now require evidence of student learning, in the form of test scores, as part of teacher evaluations. California and 10 other states do not. (The way NCTQ sees it, regardless of differing interpretations of the Stull Act, California does not require that test scores "be the preponderant criterion of its teacher evaluations.")

In the Contra Costa Superior Court on July 29, the Students Matter-backed lawyers presented their evidence that the districts are violating the Stull Act. They pointed to passages in the districts' collective bargaining agreements that bar the use of test scores in teacher evaluations. The teacher contract for San Ramon Valley Unified School District, for example, states, "The evaluation and assessment of employee competency shall not include the results from any tests." The other district contracts contained similar language.

The Students Matter lawyers argue that the contracts' language is a blatant refusal to follow the state law. "The 13 school district respondents in this case have devised teacher evaluation systems that intentionally disregard valuable student achievement data that are accessible to them," reads the lawsuit, "choosing instead to remain ignorant as to the quality of the teachers in their schools."

Lawyers for the districts argued that school districts are not in violation of the Stull Act because there's no language in the law that explicitly mandates the use of "standardized tests" in teacher evaluations. It is, therefore, within the limits of the law for local districts and unions to determine how and which data to use to evaluate teachers. Districts, according to the lawyers, have created their own assessments that they use in evaluations. 

Even if districts wanted to use standardized test scores, they couldn't, argued Mark Bresee, who represents six of the districts. He says districts have a "statutory mandate" that requires them to complete teacher evaluations within 30 days of the end of the school year, but that scores arrive in the summer.

To that argument, plaintiff lawyer Marcellus McCrae countered: "You get them when you get them and when you get them, use them. Even if they are from prior years. There's nothing that stops you from doing that."

The plaintiff lawyers also cited in their argument statistics showing that each year 98 percent of the state's teachers receive a satisfactory rating, while only 44 percent of students read on grade level, and only 33 percent can do grade-level math. The districts countered that only certain teachers have students who take standardized tests. How will physical education and music teachers be evaluated based on standardized test scores?

They also raised the question of how evaluators could reliably determine which teachers are most responsible for the test-score changes.

"If you have a student who excels on an English exam in the 11th grade, that could be because of a teacher of an elective who focused so extensively on writing that you can't say that was because of the student's English teacher...," said Bresee.

In 2011, the advocacy group EdVoice brought a similar case (Doe v. Deasy) against the Los Angeles Unified School District, and won. Judge James Chalfant left it up to the district and the union to work out how much or how little student test scores would count in teacher evaluations. An agreement made between the Los Angeles school board and the local teachers' union this past June does not specify how the test-score requirement will be met.  

Doe v. Antioch presiding Judge Barry P. Goode said he would not consider the Deasy ruling as precedent, but as evidence "of what can be done and can't be done."

At the end of the July 29 hearing, Judge Goode did not provide a timeframe for a ruling. A Students Matter spokesperson estimated the judge will decide the case in the next couple months.




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