Many states and school districts adopted value-added assessments for evaluating teacher performance as a result of education reforms under Presidents Bush and Obama. The assessments look at students’ test score gains from previous grades and use that to predict the amount of growth those students should make in a given year.

Teachers whose students make the predicted growth are rated effective, those who don’t face sanctions and possible termination. This sounds rather reasonable, but it’s controversial in part because the assessments used aren’t very sophisticated.

Particular problems come when teachers have incredibly high performing students. Teacher evaluations require that students continue to make high improvement gains, even though the reality is that the scores high-performing students have to make, according to the value-added scale, often don’t exist. In addition using value-added models of teacher effectiveness from year to year don’t yield stable or consistent results, in part because the standardized tests weren’t designed to measure teacher effectiveness. A “good” teacher one year can be a “bad” teacher the next year, indicating the value added measure isn’t really doing a good job assessing real teacher quality.

Now one New York State teacher is suing the New York State Education Department over evaluation methods. According to an article by Laura Moser at Slate:

One recurring complaint is that, because these metrics hinge so much on test-score growth, students scoring high one year may leave little room for improvement the next year, which could hurt their teachers’ ratings. These evaluations often measure students’ predicted test scores against their actual scores, which can lead to some lopsided results, like the much-discussed predicament of this Florida teacher. And…because the testing is generally limited to math and English, teachers of, say, art or science could be punished for students’ performance in subjects they don’t even teach.

And it’s for that reason that Long Island Teacher Sheri Lederman,

is suing the New York State Education Department to scrap her score. In the opening paragraph of her lawsuit, she claims that the score she received was “arbitrary and capricious and an abuse of discretion,” and one that could damage her future career prospects.

I’m not sure her score was really arbitrary . It wasn’t based on random choice or personal whim. There’s a very real system in place here, it’s just one that’s unfair and doesn’t do a terribly good job assessing whether or not a teacher is any good.

This one lawsuit is unlikely to have a major impact on teacher evaluation. It seems likely the judge will retain the system, since there is some research suggesting that it does result in schools trying harder and doing a slightly better job.

But that doesn’t mean the evaluation program itself is fair or appropriate. It appears rather like if the Department of Agriculture introduced new nutrition standards that evaluated food quality using only saturated fat. Sure, saturated fat is important and its useful for people to track and limit such fat in their diets, but if the country only looked at food using this measure we wouldn’t get improved health outcomes. It’ll be interesting to see what the judge decides after hearing the case. [Image via]

Daniel Luzer

Daniel Luzer is the news editor at Governing Magazine and former web editor of the Washington Monthly. Find him on Twitter: @Daniel_Luzer