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Judge curbs PED teacher evaluations

SANTA FE – A state district judge on Wednesday temporarily blocked the Public Education Department from using its teacher evaluation system to make employment, advancement and licensure decisions until a trial is held next spring.

Judge David Thomson granted in part a preliminary injunction sought by legislators and a teachers union, who have challenged the evaluation system in a lawsuit.

Thomson said his order prevents PED from enforcing its evaluation system until “a trial on the merits where the court can be assured of the statistical validity of the data collection and reporting that feeds into the system.”

The judge said his order “does not stop the PED’s operation, development and improvement” of the evaluation system, but it bars the department from taking “consequential actions” against teachers based on it.

A Public Education Department spokesman said that “nothing changes” in light of the Wednesday ruling and that the evaluation system will move forward.

“This is simply a legal PR stunt by the labor unions after they failed to get a complete injunction,” PED spokesman Robert McEntyre said. “New Mexicans believe that every profession should be evaluated, and we will continue to evaluate our teachers, allowing us to praise our highly effective teachers and help those who are struggling.”

But the American Federation of Teachers New Mexico and its Albuquerque local, the Albuquerque Teachers Federation, said the ruling was “welcome news for the thousands of educators across New Mexico who have been seeking relief from Gov. (Susana) Martinez and Secretary of Education Hannah Skandera’s test-and-punish ‘reforms.’ ”

Educators “can breathe a little easier and focus their efforts on providing the best education possible for our students without fear for their continued employment or career advancement,” union officials said.

National AFT President Randi Weingarten said the judge recognized that New Mexico’s system is “deeply flawed, and deprives students of the high-quality educators they deserve while also hurting and demoralizing teachers.”

The union is suing over “value-added” teacher evaluations that use student achievement on standardized tests as 50 percent of the score for the state’s roughly 23,000 public school teachers.

During a hearing last month on the injunction request, the PED argued that the value-added evaluations have not harmed the state’s teachers, because they have not caused firings, salary reductions or the loss of teacher licenses.

Thomson said the PED has shown that value-added evaluations generally have a sound policy and statistical foundation, but it’s not clear to what extent New Mexico’s system conforms to that model.

He said the inner workings of the system “are not easily understood, translated or made accessible.”

The lawsuit was filed in February by AFT, five state lawmakers and seven teachers. It claims the teacher evaluation system is too error-riddled to be a good measure of an educator’s effectiveness.

The lawsuit is one of two pending court challenges to the teacher evaluation system, which Skandera imposed administratively in 2012 after a bill to seeking to enact the system stalled in the Legislature. A separate teachers union, the National Education Association-New Mexico, filed the other lawsuit. Both cases are scheduled to go to trial in April 2016.

Previous attempts to halt the evaluation system have been rejected by the courts.

Under the system, student test scores on standardized exams make up 50 percent of a teacher’s rating in most cases. Other factors included in the rating can include teacher attendance, classroom observation by principals and student surveys.

Based on the data, teachers are then designated as falling into one of five categories – exemplary, highly effective, effective, minimally effective and ineffective. Most teachers – about 93 percent of those evaluated earlier this year – fall into one of the three middle designations. Teachers falling in the lowest two categories are placed on professional development plans, which could be affected by the partial injunction.

The next round of teacher evaluations will not be released until May, which could be after or during the scheduled trial.

During the first year the teacher evaluations were released, numerous errors were found in the ratings, a phenomenon Skandera blamed on bad data submitted to the state by local school districts.

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