There has been a major upset among Los Angeles teachers over a recent LA Times article which discussed teachers Value Added Test scores. The biggest flap has been over the Times publication of an online, searchable database that ranked teachers and schools from most to least effective. The outrage and fear has been palpable among my colleagues. Yesterday I gave a short talk at the Division of Adult and Career Education conference and one adult teacher there was asking if there was any way adult students’ test scores could be linked back to teachers. Would we be next? Would our effectiveness be published in the paper and our livelihoods called into question?
And I guess at this point I have to reveal my conflict of interest in discussing this topic. I was giving a talk at that conference about how to increase test performance for adult students, and I was giving this talk because that is what I do for a living. For eight years, I’ve worked outside the classroom, testing and measuring and sending off data in a gigantic database to the district, where it in turn goes off to the state and federal government to help assess our school’s effectiveness–and also to ensure our funding.
While I work for the Adult Division, and the testing we do is different than the tests in the Times article, I still can bear witness to the idea that teacher effectiveness can be measured (in part) by testing. The tests the Times article discussed are value-added tests. This means that if a student starts school in the 60th percentile for math or reading, we would reasonably expect the student to end the school year in the 60th percentile. If the student lands in the 80th percentile, that jump is, according to the value-added model, attributable to some extent to the student’s teacher–the increase is the value that has been added by the instructor. Of course, there are tons of other variables that could affect student performance (obviously, including how students feel the day of their test), but if you examine this data over many years and see consistent trends, the idea is that you can make evaluations of at least this one aspect of a teacher’s performance.
Do I think standardized tests can be use to evaluate teacher effectiveness? The answer, based on my years of experience looking at data like this, is absolutely, yes. Are they the only measure of teacher effectiveness? No, of course not. But I am disheartened that standardized tests are often demonized by educators. The United Teachers of Los Angeles (UTLA) has excoriated the times. The latest issue of the UTLA Magazine had photos of a variety of teachers on its cover, all holding an identical sign that read, “I am more than a test score.”
I have to heave a deep sigh when I see a reaction like this, because it confuses rational critique with personal criticism. The authors of the Times article did not claim that the teachers were good people or bad people. Their dedication wasn’t called into question, just their effectiveness by one measure–one that is not often revealed to the public. Isn’t examining teacher effectiveness important? And isn’t using data one way to approach that problem? The authors made the point that:
Although many parents fixate on picking the right school for their child, it matters far more which teacher the child gets. Teachers had three times as much influence on students’ academic development as the school they attend. Yet parents have no access to objective information about individual instructors, and they often have little say in which teacher their child gets.
I visited UTLA’s website, expecting to encounter a whiny response to this whole issue. (I admitted already that I’m biased in favor of testing.) However, I was impressed by the links they offered with what appear to be legitimate criticisms of the value-added testing model.
This video by Daniel Willingham, Professor of Psychology, makes succinct points about the problems with using test score increases to determine merit pay for teachers.
So I continue to research this issue and I am wondering what others think about it or know about it. I come from a perspective that has been obviously influenced by what I do every day and the numbers I sort through year after year. While there are many intervening circumstances that can affect a teacher’s effectiveness, I do believe testing is one measure that should be seriously considered and not dismissed out of hand by unions and teachers.