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As testing starts, critics plan post-teacher evaluation deal efforts

Carol Burris, the principal of a Long Island high school, isn’t done fighting. Even after her statewide principals petition failed to sway lawmakers from passing a teacher evaluation bill last month, she’s hoping her newest effort — a poll — will do the trick.

Beginning today, Burris is sending out surveys to principals, teachers, and parents about New York State’s high-stakes testing policy “to give voice to the concerns that we are hearing from all three groups,” she said. “We have no intention of not continuing our fight.”

She said she expects that the results from the surveys will reflect her own concerns about the testing role in teacher evaluations. “We hope that policymakers and the public will be interested in our findings,” said Burris.

Burris discussed the strategy Tuesday evening at a forum about high-stakes testing held at Murry Bergtraum High School in Manhattan. She sat on a panel alongside Class Size Matters’ Leonie Haimson; Gary Rubinstein, a math teacher known for crunching the city school data on his blog; and Khalilah Brann, a teacher at Bushwick Community High School, which is facing closure because of its student performance data.

The forum, which attracted about 50 people, was organized by Change the Stakes, a group that grew out of a committee formed by a teacher activist group, the Grassroots Education Movement, last year.

Change the Stakes has convinced some city parents to opt their children out of this year’s state tests, which began on Tuesday morning. But the panelists did not focus on this week’s exams. Instead, they were strategizing about how to combat the increased importance of test scores after Gov. Andrew Cuomo, state legislators, and teachers unions struck a deal to use them in teacher evaluations.

Some suggested a movement from inside the United Federation of Teachers. The union has not yet struck a local deal over evaluations with the city, but some who spoke at the forum were unhappy that the union had not opposed the state’s deal. Union officials have also defended elements of the state evaluation law that panel members have criticized: UFT Vice President Leo Casey dismissed Burris’s concerns about the role of state tests on the union’s blog, for example.

Peter Lamphere, a teacher and GEM member, suggested that any deals that are locally negotiated by the UFT should be put up for a referendum that would require votes from all members.

Burris’ petition paper was supported by roughly one third of New York State’s principals – about 1,400 in all. She said she continued to be concerned about the component of the February deal that would allow 40 percent of a teacher’s evaluation to be based on state test scores, despite Casey’s assurances that such an arrangement would be unlikely to gain approval in local districts. The state law mandates that at least 20 percent of ratings come from test scores.

Rubinstein said the “big mistake” had come when the state teachers union agreed to an “ineffective” cut score – 65 – before it had any indication about how the various pieces of the evaluations would be calculated. If scoring high on the 40 percent of the evaluations that are based on student growth is very difficult, that cut score would actually inflate the weight of the tests, he said.

“They’re supposed to be this evil union that’s only in it for the adults, but they’re not really doing a good job of that,” Rubinstein said.

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