Group suing school district

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Hernando County School District Teacher of the Year Bethann Brooks, who is a health science teacher at Central High School, is one of several plaintiffs listed in a federal lawsuit filed Tuesday challenging the evaluation of teachers based on the standardized test scores of students on subjects they do not teach.

The lawsuit, filed in the District Court of the United States for the Northern District of Florida, Gainesville Division, contends that teachers’ evaluations based on the test scores of students on subjects they do not teach violates the equal protection and due process clauses of the 14th Amendment.

Brooks, as well as six other accomplished teachers and local education associations in Alachua, Escambia and Hernando counties, including the Hernando Classroom Teachers Association, are seeking a declaratory judgment ruling the state bill and the district evaluation policies as unconstitutional and an injunction against their implementation.

The lawsuit was filed against Florida Commissioner of Education Tony Bennett, the State Board of Education, and the Alachua, Escambia and Hernando county school boards for implementing the evaluation system in compliance with the “Student Success Act,” which passed during the 2011 session of the Florida Legislature and requires the State Board of Education to adopt formulas for school districts to use in measuring student learning growth.

“This lawsuit highlights the absurdity of the evaluation system that has come about as a result of (the Student Success Act),” said Florida Education Association President Andy Ford. “Teachers in Florida are being evaluated using a formula designed to measure learning gains in the FCAT math and reading tests. But most teachers, including the seven in this lawsuit, don’t teach those subjects in the grades the test is administered. One of the teachers bringing this suit is getting evaluated on the test scores of students who aren’t even in her school.”

Bennett, who is the chief educational officer for the state and head of the Florida Department of Education, is responsible for approving the formula that school districts must use to measure student growth in seven certain subjects under the state bill, as well as the evaluation policies Florida school districts must adopt to comply with the bill.

The state-approved formula specified in the lawsuit, which is used to calculate teachers’ value-added scores, is called the “value-added model,” or VAM. The VAM-formula is described in the lawsuit as exceedingly complex and “difficult for anyone but an expert to understand” and therefore provides instructors little or no useful information to allow them to identify means of further professional development or to improve their professional skills or their instruction for Florida students.

“There’s no harsh feeling against the district, and we’ve worked hard with the district since this ruling from Department of Education,” said Hernando Classroom Teachers Association President Joe Vitalo said. “To give a VAM-score to every teacher is unfair, and every time we’ve tried to work with Department of Education to change it they’ve said, ‘No.’”

Vitalo said two-thirds of teachers are being measured on the standardized test scores of students they do not teach or on subjects they do not teach.

The lawsuit says the VAM-formula is adjusted to account for certain factors outside teachers’ control, such as a student’s disability status, attendance record, or status as an English language learner, but the “Student Success Act” prohibits 10 adjustments in value-added scores to control for effects of socioeconomic status, race, ethnicity or gender, even though the student achievement goals set in the state strategic plan for education account for all of those variables except gender, as does Florida’s annual assessment of its public schools’ success in achieving student growth.

Teachers rated unsatisfactory, or who have the lowest of the four performance ratings under the law for two consecutive years, or two out of three years in a row, are subject to termination or nonrenewal. Transfers, promotions and layoffs are based on the assigned performance rating, and as of July 1, 2014, salaries will be based on assigned performance rating, as well.

“We just have to protect what’s in the best interest of students and teachers, as well as the community, and it’s in the student’s best interest not to lose highly qualified people,” Vitalo said. “We’re shaking them away from the profession, and the district is losing money — this is expensive and it’s not money well spent — to take these figures and say it’s going to work when it’s not even your students or subject area.”

Other than Brooks, other plaintiffs include: Shauna Paedae, a certified mathematics teacher in the International Baccalaureate program at Pensacola High School in Escambia County; Kim Cook, a first grade teacher at W.W. Irby Elementary School in Alachua County, Catherine Boehme, a certified Biology teacher at West Florida High School of Advanced Technology in Escambia County; Emily Jefferis, a certified art teacher at Ransom Middle School in Escambia County; Janine Plavac, a certified health sciences teacher at Gainesville High School in Alachua County; and Cathy McConnell, a certified music teacher at Ransom Middle School in Escambia County.

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