The U.S. Department of Education released final guidelines for its $4.3 billion Race to the Top grant program this evening, leaving a provision that could ban New York State from applying for the funds still intact.

States that bar districts from using test scores to evaluate teachers and principals are ineligible for the fund. The language of the requirement remains exactly the same as in the draft rules released in July. The draft proposal sparked a debate about whether a New York State provision that bars using student data in teacher tenure decisions will exclude the state from the competition for grant money.

However, the final criteria does provide more context on how student data should be used to evaluate teachers and principals than did the draft proposal. The regulations call for states to develop evaluation methods that use student test scores as a “significant factor” in rating teachers and principals, but notes that it should be one factor among several categories for which teachers should be judged.

New York’s teacher tenure law sunsets next June, and some state officials, including State Board of Regents Chancellor Merryl Tisch, have said the provision’s expiration date allows the state to be eligible. State education commissioner David Steiner has argued that the law does not exclude New York from the competition because it relates exclusively to tenure decisions and not other forms of teacher evaluation. And several state officials, including Governor David Paterson, said they have personally lobbied U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan to boost the state’s chances.

The U.S. Department of Education’s time line for the application specifies that states “that are ready to apply now” should do so in a first round of applications due in mid-January; other states that need more time to comply with the eligibility requirements or to develop their grant proposals can wait until June.

According to the executive summary of the final regulations, states’ applications will be evaluated using a point system. States will earn points based on their plans for turning around the lowest-achieving schools, efforts to develop rigorous common national standards, improving the ways states collect and track student data, and improving teacher training, certification and evaluation programs. States’ plans to train, support and evaluate their teachers and principals are the most heavily-weighted factor in the application.

Here is the executive summary of the final regulations: