A federal judge in Florida dismissed a lawsuit against the state evaluation system, declaring that it was unfair to rate teachers based on the scores of students they never taught but not unconstitutional.

The evaluation system may be stupid; it may be irrational; it may be unfair; but it does not violate the Constitution. So says the judge.

An article in the Florida Education Association newsletter described the ruling:

“The federal lawsuit, known as Cook v. Stewart, was filed last year by the FEA, the National Education Association and seven accomplished teachers and the local education associations in Alachua, Escambia and Hernando counties. The lawsuit challenged the evaluation of teachers based on the standardized test scores of students they do not teach or from subjects they do not teach. They brought suit against the Florida commissioner of education, the State Board of Education and the school boards of those three counties, who have implemented the evaluation system to comply with 2011’s Senate Bill 736.

“On Tuesday afternoon, U.S. District Judge Mark Walker dismissed FEA’s challenges to the portions of SB 736 that call for teachers to be evaluated based upon students and/or subjects the teachers do not teach, though he expressed reservations on the practice.

We are disheartened by the judge’s ruling. Judge Walker acknowledged the many problems with this evaluation system, but he ruled that they did not meet the standard to be declared unconstitutional. We are evaluating what further steps we might take in this legal process.

Judge Walker indicated his discomfort with the evaluation process in his order.

“The unfairness of the evaluation system as implemented is not lost on this Court,” he wrote. “We have a teacher evaluation system in Florida that is supposed to measure the individual effectiveness of each teacher. But as the Plaintiffs have shown, the standards for evaluation differ significantly. FCAT teachers are being evaluated using an FCAT VAM that provides an individual measurement of a teacher’s contribution to student improvement in the subjects they teach.” He noted that the FCAT VAM has been applied to teachers whose students are tested in a subject that teacher does not teach and to teachers who are measured on students they have never taught, writing that “the FCAT VAM has been applied as a school-wide composite score that is the same for every teacher in the school. It does not contain any measure of student learning growth of the … teacher’s own students.”

In his ruling, Judge Walker indicated there were other problems.

“To make matters worse, the Legislature has mandated that teacher ratings be used to make important employment decisions such as pay, promotion, assignment, and retention,” he wrote. “Ratings affect a teacher’s professional reputation as well because they are made public — they have even been printed in the newspaper. Needless to say, this Court would be hard-pressed to find anyone who would find this evaluation system fair to non-FCAT teachers, let alone be willing to submit to a similar evaluation system.”

“This case, however, is not about the fairness of the evaluation system,” Walker wrote. “The standard of review is not whether the evaluation policies are good or bad, wise or unwise; but whether the evaluation policies are rational within the meaning of the law. The legal standard for invalidating legislative acts on substantive due process and equal protection grounds looks only to whether there is a conceivable rational basis to support them,” even though this basis might be “unsupported by evidence or empirical data.”