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Superior Court judge denies lawsuit that claimed teacher evaluations must include student test scores

Sarah Favot | September 19, 2016

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Press conference after Vergara decision LAUSD

Students Matter founder David F. Welch.

A judge in Northern California on Monday denied the claims in a lawsuit that challenged school districts that don’t use student test scores as part of teacher evaluations.

Students Matter, the nonprofit organization that filed Vergara v. California, sued 13 California school districts last year, saying those districts were not in compliance with the Stull Act and their collective bargaining agreements explicitly prohibited the use of student standardized test scores in assessing teacher performance. LA Unified is not a party to the lawsuit.

In the case, Doe v. Antioch, attorneys for Students Matter argued that the Stull Act requires student progress to be included as part of evaluations of teacher job performance.

In a 40-page ruling, Contra County Superior Court Judge Barry P. Goode attempted to evaluate lawmakers’ intent when it amended the portion of the Stull Act in question in 1999.

“The statutory language is not crystalline,” Goode wrote.

The disputed language of the statute is: school districts shall evaluate a teacher’s performance “as it reasonably relates to (1) the progress of pupils toward … if applicable, the state adopted academic content standards as measured by (standardized tests).”

“The phrase ‘reasonably relates’ gives the school districts discretion to determine what is reasonable in this complex situation,” Goode concluded.

It is the second legal setback for Students Matter in recent weeks. Last month, the state Supreme Court refused to take up Vergara v. California, a landmark case that challenged teacher tenure and declared some school employment laws unconstitutional.

In this most recent ruling, Goode said there is not much legislative history to evaluate lawmakers’ intent when crafting the legislation. But he pointed to a number of related points, including the fact that the California Teachers Association supported the legislation. Students Matter pointed out that teachers unions generally oppose including student test scores as part of teacher evaluations, Goode said.

“Indeed, the legislative history of the 1999 amendments is silent on the issue here,” Goode wrote. “If those amendments made the major change in teacher evaluations urged by Petitioners, one would expect the legislative history to have discussed that. Instead, the statute passed with the support of one major teachers union and the opposition of none. That, too, is relevant.”

Goode also pointed to language the state adopted when it enacted standardized tests.

“The Legislature endorses many uses of (standardized) tests, including evaluating pupils, entire schools and local education agencies. But it does not say the results should be used to evaluate individual teachers. That omission is relevant,” Goode wrote.

Goode also pointed to evidence from the school districts that questioned whether or not student test scores should or can be used to evaluate teachers.

“No district appears to ignore the standardized test results of any particular teacher’s pupils,” he wrote. “Rather, each uses those test results in a way it judges to be reasonably appropriate given the problems with the data.”

A similar lawsuit, Doe v. Deasy, was filed against LA Unified in 2011 by EdVoice. Superior Court Judge James Chalfant agreed with the plaintiffs and ordered LA Unified to renegotiate contracts with its teachers union, United Teachers Los Angeles, to develop new evaluations based in part on student progress.

This lawsuit was brought against the largest California school districts that had bargaining agreements that prohibited student test scores in teacher evaluations, according to Students Matter: Antioch Unified, Chaffey Joint Union High School District, Chino Valley Unified, El Monte City School District, Fairfield-Suisun Unified, Fremont Union High School District, Inglewood Unified, Ontario-Montclair School District, Pittsburg Unified, Saddleback Valley, San Ramon Valley Unified, Upland Unified and Victor Elementary School District. The districts serve 250,000 students.

Attorneys for Students Matter said after the lawsuit was filed, nine of the 13 school districts changed their teacher evaluation policies, practices or collective bargaining agreements to include student test scores.

Students Matter called the ruling flawed in a statement.

“Ignoring the clear and unambiguous language of the state’s longstanding teacher evaluation law, the Stull Act, the court refused to compel school districts to take student test scores into account when evaluating teachers,” the statement reads.

A spokesman for Students Matter said the organization is reviewing its options with its lawyers regarding a potential appeal.

In a statement, the organization’s founder, David F. Welch, promoted a bill by Assemblywoman Shirley Weber, AB 2826, that awaits Gov. Jerry Brown’s signature. The bill encourages school districts to adopt guidelines for teacher evaluations to include a variety of measures like student achievement, surveys from parents and students, portfolios of students’ work and classroom observations.

“If the court will not enforce the Legislature’s clear and unambiguous intent in the Stull Act, then their refusal underscores the need for Governor Brown to sign AB 2826, clarifying the measures of student progress that must be used in the evaluation of educators,” Welch said.

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