Seven Houston teachers and their union are suing the school district
to try to end job evaluations tied to students' test scores,
arguing the method is arbitrary, unfair and in violation of their due-process rights
The lawsuit, filed in federal court late Wednesday, could have far-reaching implications as more districts and states use student test data to grade teachers.
The Houston case focuses on the district's use of a specific, privately developed statistical model that analyzes test data to try to gauge a teacher's effectiveness.
In some cases, according to the lawsuit, teachers see their scores fluctuate from year to year, while other results are based on tests not aligned to the state curriculum. The lawsuit also argues that all teachers aren't treated equally, and they can't adequately challenge their ratings because the formula is too opaque.
For example, the lawsuit says, Andy Dewey, a social studies teacher at Carnegie Vanguard High School, received such high scores in 2012 that he qualified for the district's top performance bonus; his results the next year dropped significantly.
"Mr. Dewey went from being deemed one of the highest performing teachers in HISD to one making 'no detectable difference' for his students," the lawsuit said.
Dewey has told the Houston Chronicle previously that he does not understand why his scores vary when he and his fellow social studies teachers -- they are rated as a team -- don't change their instruction significantly from year to year.
The Houston lawsuit is one of the first tied to test-based teacher evaluation systems. A group of teachers in Florida has an ongoing lawsuit challenging that state's system, where some teachers earned ratings tied to classes or students they didn't teach.
The Houston school board approved its new evaluation for teachers in 2011, drawing praise from U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan for making students' academic progress a factor.
Across the country, teachers traditionally have been evaluated based on principals visiting their classrooms; few teachers received low marks. The Obama administration has pushed the use of student data as a way to hold teachers more accountable.
In the Houston Independent School District's system, observations from principals or supervisors are included, but test results count for roughly half of a teacher's final rating.
The system at the center of the lawsuit generally is called "value added." It uses complex statistics to estimate how well students should perform on standardized tests based on their own past performance. Teachers whose students score better than expected get the best ratings, whether or not the students passed the test.
To do the analysis, HISD contracts with a North Carolina company, whose model is called the Education Value-Added Assessment System, or EVAAS.
HISD officials long have defended the system, saying it indentifies teachers whose students are making the most academic progress.