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City and state take different tones in linking test scores to tenure

Mayor Michael Bloomberg is aggressively pushing for the city to link test scores to tenure decisions this year, but state education officials are less confident that the tests are a reliable measure of progress and are proceeding with caution.

Using test scores as a factor in teacher evaluations is one of the most controversial elements of the Race to the Top guidelines, which states are striving to meet in order to win the federal grants. On Monday, the State Board of Regents endorsed linking test scores to tenure decisions. But state officials are wary of using the tests before they’re improved upon, an approach that contrasts with the city’s decision to use the data immediately.

Speaking at a press conference about the state’s Race to the Top application yesterday, State Education Commissioner David Steiner warned against giving too much weight to the state tests or making them the sole indicator of a teacher’s success or failure.

“It would not be sound policy to ground the assessment of teachers in assessments we don’t have complete confidence in,” Steiner said.

Currently, New York City plans to use the tests as one of several measures of a teacher’s competence this year, though exactly how they will be used has yet to be decided.

This is not the first time Steiner has been cautious about using state tests to determine whether teachers are given tenure, though he has never commented directly on the city’s plans. At a panel at Columbia Teachers College in November, he said the state would eventually introduce a value-added system, but only “when we’re ready for it.”

“We are cautious about our approach to performance based assessments,” he said.

State Board of Regents Chancellor Merryl Tisch has also been critical of the state tests, saying they are too predictable and cover too few topics, but has stayed out of the debate about whether the city should use the test scores this year before the state increases their difficulty.

“How the mayor chooses to use the reports of his progress is for him to decide,” Tisch said in November.

The teachers union has not been shy about opposing the city’s plans and union officials have said that they could end up taking the issue to court. In a statement sent out after the Regents endorsed using test scores in teacher evaluations yesterday, UFT president Michael Mulgrew said:

How can we be thinking about judging students or teachers on the basis of state test scores? While the state test scores showed New York City students making huge progress, the NAEP tests — the national gold standard of testing — has shown that progress has been very limited. If you used the state tests, every teacher in New York City would be getting tenure, and even I don’t think that’s a good idea.