Houston Teachers Sue Over Student Test-Based Evaluation

A public education rally at the Capitol on March 11, 2013, sponsored by the Texas chapter of the American Federation of Teachers.
A public education rally at the Capitol on March 11, 2013, sponsored by the Texas chapter of the American Federation of Teachers.

Seven teachers are suing the Houston Independent School District over a recently instituted policy tying standardized test results to pay and employment decisions. 

The federal lawsuit, backed by the Houston branch of the American Federation of Teachers, a national labor union, claims that HISD officials pressured administrators to “manufacture deficiencies or otherwise find fault with the instructional practices” of teachers who received low scores through a district formula that uses students' prior standardized tests to predict academic growth in the current years.

The suit comes as state education officials are updating a statewide teacher evaluation system to include such an approach — known as a "value-added measure" and intended to provide an objective component to evaluations — as a part of a deal with the U.S. Department of Education to receive a waiver from the federal No Child Left Behind Act.

“It’s dispiriting and insulting to be told I’m ineffective, a judgment that doesn’t mesh with my classroom performance or the time and effort I devote to my students. Texas is using a broken evaluation system that isn’t properly identifying who really needs help to improve,” sixth-grade social studies teacher Daniel Santos, one of the plaintiffs, said in a statement. “My students are being tested on material that is not aligned with our curriculum.”

A spokeswoman for the Houston district said she could not comment on pending litigation. 

The district has faced controversy over an incentive pay system tied to student test scores since the 1990s. It was started under Superintendent Rod Paige, who later became President George W. Bush’s secretary of education. The teachers’ lawsuit focuses on a policy change during the 2012-13 school year that made student achievement on standardized tests, calculated by through the value added measure, the "most significant component" of teacher evaluations.

“Due to a faulty, incomprehensible and secret formula, good teachers like the ones filing this suit are being labeled failures, and our entire education system is being reduced to a numbers game,” American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten said in a statement. “Testing isn’t aligned with the purposes of public education. It doesn’t measure big-picture learning, critical thinking, resilience, creativity or curiosity, yet those are the qualities that great teaching brings out in a student."

When he announced the No Child Left Behind waiver in September, Texas Education Commissioner Michael Williams said the state would pilot a new, optional evaluation system, including a test performance-based measure, in about 40 districts statewide during the 2014-15 school year.

Asked at the time whether he would push for the authority to require districts to use the state-developed system during the next legislative session, Williams said the agency had not yet focused on a legislative agenda. Efforts to tie student performance on standardized tests, which teachers' groups in the state have long opposed, failed during the most recent legislative session amid a widespread backlash against high-stakes exams in public schools.