Ruiz raises ‘severe concerns’ about administration’s teacher evaluation program

As the Christie administration’s new regulations for teacher evaluation near a critical juncture, the prime author of the landmark tenure reform law behind the proposed rules said the administration may be moving too aggressively in some places.

State Sen. Teresa Ruiz (D-Essex), the legislator most credited for the new tenure law, said Tuesday in some of her first public comments on the regulations that the administration’s plans to base 35 percent of certain teachers’ evaluations on state test scores, starting next year, may be too ambitious.

“If we are going to roll out regulations in the first year with the 35 percent component, I have severe concerns with that,” Ruiz said in an interview.

Ruiz, usually fairly circumspect in her public comments, said she is not against the system building to 35 percent over time, but not right away. “It would be a more responsible approach if we grew to that 35 percent,” she said.

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Ruiz also said that gauges of student achievement for teachers whose students are not tested needed clarifying in the regulations. When asked if she were sharing her concerns with the state officials as the regulations wound their way through the administrative process, Ruiz said she had and would continue to do so.

“I am going to work very hard to make sure the regulations fulfill the intent of the bill,” she said.

The pace of changes has been one of the prime concerns about the new regulations since they were introduced last month. The administration does not appear to be bending much, however, as the proposed code goes to the state Board of Education for a second discussion and its first public hearing next Wednesday.

Once through the hearing, the code moves to the formal proposal stage. At this point the code is difficult to change without starting the process again. The timeline is tight, with the final approval scheduled for the fall, when districts are required to have the evaluation systems in place and judging teachers.

State Education Commissioner Chris Cerf, who worked with Ruiz in crafting the tenure law, said Tuesday that his staff’s regulations were in keeping with the statute that Ruiz sponsored and was unanimously approved last summer.

Under the statute, as much as 50 percent of a teacher’s evaluation can be determined by state test scores. The state plans to use a measure called “student growth percentiles,” in which a child’s progress is compared against other children with similar achievement levels.

“We took an extremely measured approach to that unanimous statutory mandate,” Cerf said.

He also stressed that the SGP measure would only apply in the first year to a fifth of teachers, those teaching children with at least two years of state testing. Those would be language arts and math teachers in Grades 4 to 8.

“We do not apply it at all to 80 percent of teachers, and for the rest, we only apply 35 percent,” Cerf said. “We were authorized to go 50 percent, and we chose a number significantly lower than that.”

Still, Cerf said he expected some unspecified amendments to the proposed regulations as they come back before the board. “We are stepping into this slowly over time, and operating well under the ceiling authorized by statute,” he said.

The state board is the next stop in the discussion, beginning next Wednesday. The board already has some concerns about how particular teachers are to be evaluated, such as those working in special education.

Board president Arcelio Aponte said although he has not yet heard much feedback personally, he expected more to come, starting with the Wednesday afternoon hearing.

“I’m sure we’ll have quite a few people there,” he said.


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