Friday, May 2, 2014

Value-Added Measures and Harmful Consequences of Measure & Punish

"The M & P (Measure and Punish) Theory of Change suggests that by holding districts, schools, teachers and students accountable for meeting higher standards, as measured by student performance on high-stakes tests, administrators will supervise America's public schools better, teachers will teach better, and as a result students will learn more, particularly in America's lowest performing schools." Audrey Amrein-Bearsley, Rethinking Value-Added Models in Education

As states and school districts begin to wade deeper into using value-added measures, or VAMs, in high-stakes employment decisions, lawsuits are inevitable. On Wednesday, seven Houston Independent School District teachers and their union filed a lawsuit against the Houston Independent School District (HISD), (See "Seven Teachers and Their Union Are Suing HISD to End Evaluations Tied to Students' Test Scores.") In this case, the teachers and their unions are focusing on the fact that teacher value-added ratings fluctuated immensely from year to year. For example, one of the plaintiffs, Andy Dewey, a social studies teacher, received high ratings in 2012, enough for him to receive a bonus. His results the next year dropped significantly. The lawsuit, which you can read for yourself here (HISD Lawsuit), states, "Mr. Dewey went from being deemed one of the highest performing teachers in HISD to one making 'no detectable difference' for his students." If, as VAM supporters hold to be true, teachers have substantial effect on student scores, how can a teacher get it perfectly correct one year, and get it all wrong the next?

HISD defends the use of value-added in its high-stakes practices, even as organizations such as the American Statistical Association cautions strongly against such use. Contrary to what those who support value-added measures say, even if you set aside the technical and methodological concerns, there is absolutely no evidence that using value-added measures as a part of teacher evaluations has any effect on student learning. There is, however, a great deal of research pointing out that there are potentially harmful, unintended consequences of using standardized tests in any high stakes manner. Those consequences include:

  • Increased amounts of time devoted to teaching to the test and test prep activities.
  • Administrative decisions made to drop non-tested subjects like art and social studies.
  • Decreases in morale among teachers and administrators.
  • Administrative decisions to cut time spent in untested subjects to focus on tested subjects.
  • Narrowing of the curriculum to only what gets tested.
  • Teaching becomes more didactic and teacher-centered rather than student-centered or 21st century oriented.
  • Increased levels of frustration for students as they are subjected to more and more standardized tests.
  • Teaching shifts to focusing more on "bubble" students or "money" students as I have heard them called. These are the students that have been identified to have the most potential for the greatest amount of growth. The other students receive less instruction and teacher attention as a result.
  • Increased student apathy and boredom as a result of the disconnect between content relevancy and what's tested.
  • Teachers and administrators shop for students and classes in order to teach students who are more likely to provide them with desired academic growth and test scores.
  • Teachers are leaving a profession where they once believed in teaching students content worthwhile, which is rapidly becoming more focused on the raising of test scores.
  • Potential teachers are choosing to not become teachers because it is no longer about teaching content they care about; it has become more about playing the game to get high test scores.
  • In some schools and districts, teaching has become programmed and scripted and not creative, engaging and self-fulfilling any more.
  • Administrators and teachers are held accountable for test scores in an environment where there are so many things not under their control, such as budgets, which violates the Cardinal Rule of Accountability, which states "Hold people accountable for what they control."
The use of high-stakes testing and VAMs are impacting schools and classrooms, but the costs and negative consequences are high. This lawsuit, while it is indicative of some serious methodological concerns about value-added measure, it is also a symptom of a greater issue. Those who still support high-stakes accountability and the use of VAM ignore or minimize any objections to their use. The massive increase in testing and its use for high-stakes personnel decisions under federal and state policy is negatively impacting our schools, classrooms, students, teachers, and our parents. The question becomes, at what point are policymakers going to realize the damage being done to public education?

All this focus on standardized testing is making public education a bizarre world where schools serve soft drinks to students as a test preparation strategy (See "Florida School Stops Giving Students Caffeinated Soda Before Standardized Tests"), and where entire schools hold pep rallies in their gymnasiums to get students "pumped up" for latest tests. Where time-honored subjects have become worthless and what's most trivial and "testable" gets emphasized. Where teachers are forced to focus on "money" students at the expense of other students who have needs too. Does not anyone else see anything morally wrong with this entire picture? To me, it is certainly understandable that when "the test results" are what determines job effectiveness, any educator is understandably going to do what is necessary to increase the measure by which their effectiveness is judged. Still, there are moral boundaries we should be unwilling to cross and ethical principles we just can't violate. Raising test scores is not our highest calling as educators despite what the Measure and Punish crowd think, and "Raising them at any cost" is morally repugnant and gives these tests more dignity and importance than they deserve.

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