In 2011, the state of Florida passed its Student Success Act, the cornerstone of which is a teacher evaluation systems that employed a “value-added” component that seeks to isolate the effects of teachers on individual student performance. The legislation specifically required that “‘[a]t least 50 percent of a performance evaluation must be based upon data and indicators of student learning growth assessed annually by statewide assessments” (internal citations omitted). For many teachers, the value-added component was measured by student performance on the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test (FCAT), and the teacher evaluation model came to be known, at least in the courts, as the “FCAT VAM” (value-added model). The VAM for Florida teachers generates two components; the first is a “teacher component,” which isolates teacher effects on student performance, and the second is a “common school component,” which essentially measures non-teacher effects on student performance, including “principal” and “neighborhood” effects. The teacher’s overall performance rating is the sum of the teacher component and the common school components, with each component accounting for 50 percent. The FCAT VAM separated teachers into three groups: (a) Type A teachers, i.e., those who teach mathematics in grades 4-8 and those who teach English in grades 4-10 (i.e., those who are assessed by the FCAT standardized test); (b) Type B teachers, i.e., those who teach grades 4-10 in subjects other than math and English, and (c) Type C teachers, i.e., those who teach students who are not in tested grades or who don’t otherwise take the FCAT. Because Type B and Type C teachers do not have students who are assessed by the FCAT, school districts in Florida are directed to “select an ‘equally appropriate formula for measuring student learning growth’” (internal citations omitted). As the court noted, most Florida school districts do not have the means to develop “alternative assessments” or value-added equivalents to the FCAT VAM to measure student growth. In these cases, Type B teachers were evaluated on FCAT VAM scores for students to whom they did not directly teach math or English, and Type C teachers were also evaluated similarly, even though most likely did not teach (at all) the students whose assessment scores generated the teachers’ “teacher component” VAM score.
The plaintiffs in this case were seven Florida teachers from three school districts, as well as their teachers’ associations, who sued three school districts, the Florida State Board of Education, and the Florida Commissioner of Education. The plaintiffs asserted that the Student Success Act, and in particular, the FCAT VAM, violated the rights of the teachers to Due Process and Equal Protection.
The Eleventh Circuit affirmed the federal district grant of summary judgment to the school district and state defendants. After first finding that the plaintiffs had standing and that changes to the Student Success Act did render the complaint moot, the federal appellate court entertained the plaintiffs’ Due Process and Equal Protection challenges. Because it found that the Student Success Act did not impinge upon a fundamental right under the Due Process Clause, the court employed a rational basis review to determine whether the Act was “rationally related to a legitimate governmental purpose.” Rejecting the plaintiffs’ contention that the Act had no rational basis because it evaluated teachers based on the performance of students or subjects the teachers did not teach, the court instead observed that the while the “FCAT VAM may not be the best method—or may even be a poor one—for” assessing teacher performance, the state and school districts could still rationally determine that such a teacher assessment system would further the state’s interest in improving student achievement. Employing a similar rational basis review to the plaintiffs’ equal protection claim (since the classification at issue here was teachers who taught students the subjects in which they were tested versus teachers who did not), the court found again a rational relationship of the FCAT VAM to the state’s purpose of enhancing academic achievement. The court distinguished this case from the 5th Circuit’s 1981 decision in Debra P. v. Turlington, 644 F.2d 397 (5th Cir. 1981), where the court remanded the Florida high stakes exit exam on due process grounds since it was alleged that students were not taught the material that was covered on the test. Here, there was no such allegation. Thus far, then, the FCAT VAM has survived a district and appellate court challenge.
Note: This decision appears to be the first rendered by a federal appellate court in a challenge to a VAM for teacher evaluation. In May 2014, the Houston Federation of Teachers filed suit challenging the Houston Independent School District’s VAM for teacher evaluation (see, e.g., http://bit.ly/1Khj7wb). The case is styled Houston Federation of Teachers v. Houston Indep. Sch. Dist., No. 14-cv-01189 (filed in S.D. Tex. 2014), and the case is pending before the Federal District Court of the Southern District of Texas (www.pacer.gov, last accessed 9/16/2015). In addition, the Texas Teacher Evaluation and Support System (T-TESS) and Texas Principal Evaluation and Support System (T-PESS), both of which contain a value-added component for evaluating the performance of teachers and principals, are set to roll out in fall 2016 after two years of pilot testing (see, generally, http://tea.texas.gov/Texas_Educators/Evaluation_and_Support_System/, last accessed 9/16/2015).