July/August 2013 - APPR/Teacher Evaluation, Testing/Assessments and Learning Standards
June 21, 2013

SED reversal on guidance for labs is a NYSUT win for science teachers

Author: Sylvia Saunders
Source: NYSUT United
science lab students
Caption: Earth science teacher Jeff Peneston helps students get started with the ice auger during an outdoor lab. Photo by Lauren Long.

Science teachers and their union taught the State Education Department a lesson in common sense and fairness.

NYSUT President Dick Iannuzzi termed SED's action a clear reversal of an "absurd" position.

"NYSUT is pleased that the voices of science teachers, amplified by their union, have been heard," Iannuzzi said. "This was a policy that was nothing short of absurd ... demonstrating that the State Education Department was out of touch."

At issue was SED guidance in response to questions from the field issued in late May, just two weeks before classes would end, indicating that if a student failed to meet the lab requirement and was not allowed to take the science Regents exam, the student would count as a zero in the teacher's Student Learning Objective (SLO) evaluation component.

"It is the responsibility of the teacher to ensure that all students meet lab requirements so that they are able to sit for the Regents exam," the guidance stated. If the student was unable to take the exam, the student would receive a zero, the guidance said, noting "this score would then need to be factored into the teacher's final summative SLO rating."

The response, which contradicted previous SED guidance, set off a firestorm of opposition.

NYSUT Vice President Maria Neira fiercely pressed SED and the Regents on the issue, arguing how unfair it was to assign teachers and students zeros - or to change the rules at the end of the school year.

The union fired up science teachers and educated the public and media about what was at stake.

Brian Vorwald, president of the Science Teachers Association of New York State and a retired Long Island earth science teacher, called the policy "unconscionable." He said it would unfairly penalize teachers and create significant equity issues throughout the state.

Vorwald noted it would be especially problematic for teachers with high percentages of at-risk students with attendance issues.

"Students who are deficient in satisfactory written laboratory reports have reached this situation despite the best efforts of their teachers," Vorwald wrote in a letter to the Regents. "Teachers can provide all of the support necessary for their students to meet the lab requirement but cannot guarantee that all students will take ownership for their own academic responsibility. To count it against the teacher is unfair."

SED officials told newspapers the required 1,200 minutes of hands-on lab work was nothing new. They said that if a few students got zeros on the exam, it would not necessarily hurt a teacher's evaluation because the zeros would be averaged into all the other students' scores.

Jeff Peneston, an earth science teacher at Liverpool High School and the 2011 state Teacher of the Year, said the policy was insulting to teachers and showed SED doesn't understand what happens in the classroom. He noted some students simply refuse to do the work. Other students may become ill or transfer from another state late in the year and find it difficult to get all the necessary lab time completed, he said.

After news coverage escalated statewide, SED issued a clarification, saying "if the local school district determines the extenuating circumstances were beyond the teacher's control, the student's lack of score on the science Regents will have no impact on the state growth score portion of the teacher's Annual Professional Performance Review score."

"I'm glad this got worked out, but really, it's about more than science," Peneston said. "It's about listening to people in the classroom."

"It's encouraging the voices of practitioners prevailed," Neira said.

For more info

Visit www.engageny.org/resource/guidance-on-new-york-s-annual-professional-performance-review-law-and-regulations to view SED's clarification for science labs.