PolitiFact Florida: As Crist notes, some teachers' pay reflects grades of students they don't teach

Published Sept. 30, 2013

Pay raises for new teachers in Florida will be partially tied to how their students perform in the classroom, but school districts are struggling to find ways to measure how a teacher affects a student's score on a test.

Using reading and math scores from the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test may make sense for reading and math teachers, but what about educators who teach electives, language and arts courses? Those subjects do not come with a standardized test.

It's a fundamental flaw in the merit-pay system, one that prompted Gov. Charlie Crist to veto the Republican-led proposal in 2010.

Crist's successor and potential 2014 opponent, Gov. Rick Scott, signed a similar bill into law in 2011.

"The results were, unfortunately, as expected," Crist wrote in a Sept. 22 column in the Tampa Bay Times. "Today many Florida teachers are at risk of having their pay impacted by the performance of children who are not even in their classrooms or subject areas."

We decided to see if Crist is right: Are Florida teachers "at risk of having their pay impacted by the performance of children who are not even in their classrooms or subject areas"?

Under the law, teachers are evaluated based on a scoring system with categories of highly effective, effective, needs improvement and unsatisfactory. (Performance-based evaluations started in the 2011-12 school year but will not be tied to salary increases and job status until the 2014-15 school year, at least statewide.)

How districts measure a teacher's influence is basically up to them.

About half of the teacher's grade is based on student performance. For teachers who teach reading and math in grades tested by the FCAT, the assessment data was pertinent.

But for the thousands of teachers who teach other subjects, such as art, music or social studies, or those grades that are not measured by FCAT, districts had to think of another way to gauge their performance.

Most went with schoolwide FCAT scores, which measure reading (grades 3-10), math (grades 3-8) and science (grades 5 and 8). The decision was controversial enough that seven teachers, with the backing of the Florida Education Association, sued the state's education commissioner and board. One plaintiff, Hernando County teacher Bethann Brooks, was evaluated based on reading test scores of freshmen and sophomores, but Brooks taught juniors and seniors health science. In the new system, Brooks' performance fell from "highly effective" to "effective."

As evidence to back up his claim, Crist sent us an April 2013 Washington Post blog post highlighting the lawsuit.

But that's not the latest news on this issue.

Sen. Anitere Flores, R-Miami, tried to improve the 2011 law by inserting language in a 2013 bill that said teachers had to be evaluated on the performance of their students.

But the change was hardly a magic wand. It told districts what not to do, but not how to avoid it.

Take Pinellas County, where the School Board tried to comply with the new state law by passing a plan that greatly reduced the number of teachers evaluated based on students they did not teach. However, many teachers will continue being evaluated by student scores in subjects they do not teach. Schoolwide reading and math FCAT scores will continue to be used in evaluations for teachers in non-core subjects, such as art, music and physical education, as well as middle and high school science teachers.

Hillsborough County schools were in a better position than most, because the system developed end-of-course exams for all academic subjects including electives a few years ago thanks to a grant, said district spokesman Stephen Hegarty.

The goal is to have an assessment for every subject, said Department of Education spokeswoman Cheryl Etters, but it's not ready yet.

Our ruling

Crist is echoing a legitimate concern of teachers, administrators, lawmakers and unions of the performance pay law. Crist neglects to mention the Legislature tried to address this in a new law that says teachers can only be evaluated by students in their classrooms.

Until more assessments are prepared for more subjects, some teachers, particularly in non-core classes or in grades without assessments, will continue to be evaluated not based on the subjects they teach but on overall student scores in FCAT reading and math.

Crist's point is largely accurate given the first round of evaluations, but a new law aims to reduce the problem.

We rate this Mostly True.

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