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Atlanta cheating scandal raises more questions about Ohio merit pay legislation

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The recent cheating scandal plaguing Atlanta's public school system raises new questions regarding the legal ramifications of Ohio's upcoming merit pay program. House Bill 153 outlines a compensation system that would require districts to evaluate teachers annually and pay salaries based on a variety of factors instead of the traditional experience-education formula. Fifty percent of a teacher's salary must be based on his or her students' test scores, which the Atlanta scandal has shown can be easily altered.

While some have questioned the capacity of school districts to create and implement the evaluation practices, concerns have now arisen over the legal consequences of such a system. Because teacher compensation will be tied to student test scores, inaccurate test scores would necessarily result in inaccurate teacher pay. Because such a large portion of the teacher's score is based on student testing, incidences of cheating become even more serious with more far-reaching effects.

For example, if a student takes a test and the teacher later erases wrong answers and fills in new bubbles with the correct answers, the student's test score will be inflated. The higher student test score will result in a higher teacher evaluation score leading to higher teacher compensation. If it is determined the student's scores inaccurately represent the student's growth or knowledge, the teacher's compensation will have been inaccurately calculated. Will the state require the teacher to repay a portion of the salary? If so, how much? Will the state demand a percentage for every student whose answers were altered? What evidence will suffice to require this repayment? What will happen if the student is cheating, but the teacher is not involved?

The newly-signed merit pay legislation makes no mention of the consequences, remedies, or legal efforts that will ensue if student scores are tainted. While the State Board of Education has until December 21, 2011 to figure out this logistical labyrinth, individual school districts will have until July 1, 2013 to implement the new salary system. However, the legitimacy and legality of whatever system is created will likely face challenges, resulting in a new wave of legal fees for schools to absorb as they attempt to maneuver their way through this new approach to educator compensation.

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