The New York Times on “The Little Known Statistician” Who Passed

As many of you may recall, I wrote a post last March about the passing of William L. Sanders at age 74. Sanders developed the Education Value-Added Assessment System (EVAAS) — the value-added model (VAM) on which I have conducted most of my research (see, for example, here and here) and the VAM at the core of most of the teacher evaluation lawsuits in which I have been (or still am) engaged (see here, here, and here).

Over the weekend, though, The New York Times released a similar piece about Sanders’s passing, titled “The Little-Known Statistician Who Taught Us to Measure Teachers.” Because I had multiple colleagues and blog followers email me (or email me about) this article, I thought I would share it out with all of you, with some additional comments, of course, but also given the comments I already made in my prior post here.

First, I will start by saying that the title of this article is misleading in that what this “little-known” statistician contributed to the field of education was hardly “little” in terms of its size and impact. Rather, Sanders and his associates at SAS Institute Inc. greatly influenced our nation in terms of the last decade of our nation’s educational policies, as largely bent on high-stakes teacher accountability for educational reform. This occurred in large part due to Sanders’s (and others’) lobbying efforts when the federal government ultimately choose to incentivize and de facto require that all states hold their teachers accountable for their value-added, or lack thereof, while attaching high-stakes consequences (e.g., teacher termination) to teachers’ value-added estimates. This, of course, was to ensure educational reform. This occurred at the federal level, as we all likely know, primarily via Race to the Top and the No Child Left Behind Waivers essentially forced upon states when states had to adopt VAMs (or growth models) to also reform their teachers, and subsequently their schools, in order to continue to receive the federal funds upon which all states still rely.

It should be noted, though, that we as a nation have been relying upon similar high-stakes educational policies since the late 1970s (i.e., for now over 35 years); however, we have literally no research evidence that these high-stakes accountability policies have yielded any of their intended effects, as still perpetually conceptualized (see, for example, Nevada’s recent legislative ruling here) and as still advanced via large- and small-scale educational policies (e.g., we are still A Nation At Risk in terms of our global competitiveness). Yet, we continue to rely on the logic in support of such “carrot and stick” educational policies, even with this last decade’s teacher- versus student-level “spin.” We as a nation could really not be more ahistorical in terms of our educational policies in this regard.

Regardless, Sanders contributed to all of this at the federal level (that also trickled down to the state level) while also actively selling his VAM to state governments as well as local school districts (i.e., including the Houston Independent School District in which teacher plaintiffs just won a recent court ruling against the Sanders value-added system here), and Sanders did this using sets of (seriously) false marketing claims (e.g., purchasing and using the EVAAS will help “clear [a] path to achieving the US goal of leading the world in college completion by the year 2020”). To see two empirical articles about the claims made to sell Sanders’s EVAAS system, the research non-existent in support of each of the claims, and the realities of those at the receiving ends of this system (i.e., teachers) as per their experiences with each of the claims, see here and here.

Hence, to assert that what this “little known” statistician contributed to education was trivial or inconsequential is entirely false. Thankfully, with the passage of the Every Student Succeeds Act” (ESSA) the federal government came around, in at least some ways. While not yet acknowledging how holding teachers accountable for their students’ test scores, while ideal, simply does not work (see the “Top Ten” reasons why this does not work here), at least the federal government has given back to the states the authority to devise, hopefully, some more research-informed educational policies in these regards (I know….).

Nonetheless, may he rest in peace (see also here), perhaps also knowing that his forever stance of “[making] no apologies for the fact that his methods were too complex for most of the teachers whose jobs depended on them to understand,” just landed his EVAAS in serious jeopardy in court in Houston (see here) given this stance was just ruled as contributing to the violation of teachers’ Fourteenth Amendment rights (i.e., no state or in this case organization shall deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process [emphasis added]).

Large-Scale Test Scores to Officially Count for 40% V. 50% of Nevada Teachers’ Annual Evaluations

Written into my last post here were “The ‘Top Ten’ Research-Based Reasons Why Large-Scale, Standardized Tests Should Not Be Used to Evaluate Teachers…” really anywhere, but specific to this post in the state of Nevada. Accordingly, this post pertained to what were then the ongoing legislative negotiations in Nevada, and a testimony that I submitted and titled as such.

Well, it looks like those in Nevada who, as detailed more fully in another post here, were “trying to eliminate — or at least reduce — the role [students’] standardized tests play[ed] in evaluations of teachers, saying educators [were] being unfairly judged on factors outside of their control,” lost their legislative fight.

As per their proposed AB320, the state would have eliminated large-scale standardized test results as a mandated teacher evaluation measure, but the state would have allowed local assessments to account for 20% of a teacher’s total evaluation.

On Friday, however, the Nevada Independent released an article about how the state, instead, passed a “compromised bill.” Accordingly, large-scale standardized test scores are to still to be used to evaluate teachers, although they are to now count for 40% versus 50% of Nevada teachers’ overall evaluation scores. This is clearly a loss given the bill was passed as “something [so] much closer to the system already in place” (i.e., moving from 50% to 40%).

This is all  unfortunate, also given this outcome seemed to come down to a vote that fell along party lines (i.e., in favor of the 40% “compromise”), and this was ultimately signed by Nevada’s Republican Governor Sandoval, who also had the authority to see AB320 through (i.e., not in its revised form).

Apparently, Nevada will continue to put up a good fight. Hopefully in the future, the state will also fall in line with what seems to be trending across other states (e.g., Connecticut, Texas), in which legislators are removing such misinformed, arbitrary, and commonsensical (i.e., without research evidence and support) mandates and requirements.

Also Last Thursday in Nevada: The “Top Ten” Research-Based Reasons Why Large-Scale, Standardized Tests Should Not Be Used to Evaluate Teachers

Last Thursday was a BIG day in terms of value-added models (VAMs). For those of you who missed it, US Magistrate Judge Smith ruled — in Houston Federation of Teachers (HFT) et al. v. Houston Independent School District (HISD) — that Houston teacher plaintiffs’ have legitimate claims regarding how their EVAAS value-added estimates, as used (and abused) in HISD, was a violation of their Fourteenth Amendment due process protections (i.e., no state or in this case organization shall deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process). See post here: “A Big Victory in Court in Houston.” On the same day, “we” won another court case — Texas State Teachers Association v. Texas Education Agency —  on which The Honorable Lora J. Livingston ruled that the state was to remove all student growth requirements from all state-level teacher evaluation systems. In other words, and in the name of increased local control, teachers throughout Texas will no longer be required to be evaluated using their students’ test scores. See prior post here: “Another Big Victory in Court in Texas.”

Also last Thursday (it was a BIG day, like I said), I testified, again, regarding a similar provision (hopefully) being passed in the state of Nevada. As per a prior post here, Nevada’s “Democratic lawmakers are trying to eliminate — or at least reduce — the role [students’] standardized tests play in evaluations of teachers, saying educators are being unfairly judged on factors outside of their control.” More specifically, as per AB320 the state would eliminate statewide, standardized test results as a mandated teacher evaluation measure but allow local assessments to account for 20% of a teacher’s total evaluation. AB320 is still in work session. It has the votes in committee and on the floor, thus far.

The National Center on Teacher Quality (NCTQ), unsurprisingly (see here and here), submitted (unsurprising) testimony against AB320 that can be read here, and I submitted testimony (I think, quite effectively 😉 ) refuting their “research-based” testimony, and also making explicit what I termed “The “Top Ten” Research-Based Reasons Why Large-Scale, Standardized Tests Should Not Be Used to Evaluate Teachers” here. I have also pasted my submission below, in case anybody wants to forward/share any of my main points with others, especially others in similar positions looking to impact state or local educational policies in similar ways.


May 4, 2017

Dear Assemblywoman Miller:

Re: The “Top Ten” Research-Based Reasons Why Large-Scale, Standardized Tests Should Not Be Used to Evaluate Teachers

While I understand that the National Council on Teacher Quality (NCTQ) submitted a letter expressing their opposition against Assembly Bill (AB) 320, it should be officially noted that, counter to that which the NCTQ wrote into its “research-based” letter,[1] the American Statistical Association (ASA), the American Educational Research Association (AERA), the National Academy of Education (NAE), and other large-scale, highly esteemed, professional educational and educational research/measurement associations disagree with the assertions the NCTQ put forth. Indeed, the NCTQ is not a nonpartisan research and policy organization as claimed, but one of only a small handful of partisan operations still in existence and still pushing forward what is increasingly becoming dismissed as America’s ideal teacher evaluation systems (e.g., announced today, Texas dropped their policy requirement that standardized test scores be used to evaluate teachers; Connecticut moved in the same policy direction last month).

Accordingly, these aforementioned and highly esteemed organizations have all released statements cautioning all against the use of students’ large-scale, state-level standardized tests to evaluate teachers, primarily, for the following research-based reasons, that I have limited to ten for obvious purposes:

  1. The ASA evidenced that teacher effects correlate with only 1-14% of the variance in their students’ large-scale standardized test scores. This means that the other 86%-99% of the variance is due to factors outside of any teacher’s control (e.g., out-of-school and student-level variables). That teachers’ effects, as measured by large-scaled standardized tests (and not including other teacher effects that cannot be measured using large-scaled standardized tests), account for such little variance makes using them to evaluate teachers wholly irrational and unreasonable.
  1. Large-scale standardized tests have always been, and continue to be, developed to assess levels of student achievement, but not levels of growth in achievement over time, and definitely not growth in achievement that can be attributed back to a teacher (i.e., in terms of his/her effects). Put differently, these tests were never designed to estimate teachers’ effects; hence, using them in this regard is also psychometrically invalid and indefensible.
  1. Large-scale standardized tests, when used to evaluate teachers, often yield unreliable or inconsistent results. Teachers who should be (more or less) consistently effective are, accordingly, being classified in sometimes highly inconsistent ways year-to-year. As per the current research, a teacher evaluated using large-scale standardized test scores as effective one year has a 25% to 65% chance of being classified as ineffective the following year(s), and vice versa. This makes the probability of a teacher being identified as effective, as based on students’ large-scale test scores, no different than the flip of a coin (i.e., random).
  1. The estimates derived via teachers’ students’ large-scale standardized test scores are also invalid. Very limited evidence exists to support that teachers whose students’ yield high- large-scale standardized tests scores are also effective using at least one other correlated criterion (e.g., teacher observational scores, student satisfaction survey data), and vice versa. That these “multiple measures” don’t map onto each other, also given the error prevalent in all of the “multiple measures” being used, decreases the degree to which all measures, students’ test scores included, can yield valid inferences about teachers’ effects.
  1. Large-scale standardized tests are often biased when used to measure teachers’ purported effects over time. More specifically, test-based estimates for teachers who teach inordinate proportions of English Language Learners (ELLs), special education students, students who receive free or reduced lunches, students retained in grade, and gifted students are often evaluated not as per their true effects but group effects that bias their estimates upwards or downwards given these mediating factors. The same thing holds true with teachers who teach English/language arts versus mathematics, in that mathematics teachers typically yield more positive test-based effects (which defies logic and commonsense).
  1. Related, large-scale standardized tests estimates are fraught with measurement errors that negate their usefulness. These errors are caused by inordinate amounts of inaccurate and missing data that cannot be replaced or disregarded; student variables that cannot be statistically “controlled for;” current and prior teachers’ effects on the same tests that also prevent their use for making determinations about single teachers’ effects; and the like.
  1. Using large-scale standardized tests to evaluate teachers is unfair. Issues of fairness arise when these test-based indicators impact some teachers more than others, sometimes in consequential ways. Typically, as is true across the nation, only teachers of mathematics and English/language arts in certain grade levels (e.g., grades 3-8 and once in high school) can be measured or held accountable using students’ large-scale test scores. Across the nation, this leaves approximately 60-70% of teachers as test-based ineligible.
  1. Large-scale standardized test-based estimates are typically of very little formative or instructional value. Related, no research to date evidences that using tests for said purposes has improved teachers’ instruction or student achievement as a result. As per UCLA Professor Emeritus James Popham: The farther the test moves away from the classroom level (e.g., a test developed and used at the state level) the worst the test gets in terms of its instructional value and its potential to help promote change within teachers’ classrooms.
  1. Large-scale standardized test scores are being used inappropriately to make consequential decisions, although they do not have the reliability, validity, fairness, etc. to satisfy that for which they are increasingly being used, especially at the teacher-level. This is becoming increasingly recognized by US court systems as well (e.g., in New York and New Mexico).
  1. The unintended consequences of such test score use for teacher evaluation purposes are continuously going unrecognized (e.g., by states that pass such policies, and that states should acknowledge in advance of adapting such policies), given research has evidenced, for example, that teachers are choosing not to teach certain types of students whom they deem as the most likely to hinder their potentials positive effects. Principals are also stacking teachers’ classes to make sure certain teachers are more likely to demonstrate positive effects, or vice versa, to protect or penalize certain teachers, respectively. Teachers are leaving/refusing assignments to grades in which test-based estimates matter most, and some are leaving teaching altogether out of discontent or in professional protest.

[1] Note that the two studies the NCTQ used to substantiate their “research-based” letter would not support the claims included. For example, their statement that “According to the best-available research, teacher evaluation systems that assign between 33 and 50 percent of the available weight to student growth ‘achieve more consistency, avoid the risk of encouraging too narrow a focus on any one aspect of teaching, and can support a broader range of learning objectives than measured by a single test’ is false. First, the actual “best-available” research comes from over 10 years of peer-reviewed publications on this topic, including over 500 peer-reviewed articles. Second, what the authors of the Measures of Effective Teaching (MET) Studies found was that the percentages to be assigned to student test scores were arbitrary at best, because their attempts to empirically determine such a percentage failed. This face the authors also made explicit in their report; that is, they also noted that the percentages they suggested were not empirically supported.

Breaking News: Another Big Victory in Court in Texas

Earlier today I released a post regarding “A Big Victory in Court in Houston,” in which I wrote about how, yesterday, US Magistrate Judge Smith ruled — in Houston Federation of Teachers et al. v. Houston Independent School District — that Houston teacher plaintiffs’ have legitimate claims regarding how their Education Value-Added Assessment System (EVAAS) value-added scores, as used (and abused) in HISD, was a violation of their Fourteenth Amendment due process protections (i.e., no state or in this case organization shall deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process). Hence, on this charge, this case is officially going to trial.

Well, also yesterday, “we” won another court case on which I also served as an expert witness (I served as an expert witness on behalf of the plaintiffs alongside Jesse Rothstein in the court case noted above). As per this case — Texas State Teachers Association v. Texas Education Agency, Mike Morath in his Official Capacity as Commissioner of Education for the State of Texas (although there were three similar cases also filed – see all four referenced below) — The Honorable Lora J. Livingston ruled that the Defendants are to make revisions to 19 Tex. Admin. Code § 150.1001 that most notably include the removal of (A) student learning objectives [SLOs], (B) student portfolios, (C) pre and post test results on district level assessments; or (D) value added data based on student state assessment results. In addition, “The rules do not restrict additional factors a school district may consider…,” and “Under the local appraisal system, there [will be] no required weighting for each measure…,” although districts can chose to weight whatever measures they might choose. “Districts can also adopt an appraisal system that does not provide a single, overall summative rating.” That is, increased local control.

If the Texas Education Agency (TEA) does not adopt the regulations put forth by the court by next October, this case will continue. This does not look likely, however, in that as per a news article released today, here, Texas “Commissioner of Education Mike Morath…agreed to revise the [states’] rules in exchange for the four [below] teacher groups’ suspending their legal challenges.” As noted prior, the terms of this settlement call for the removal of the above-mentioned, state-required, four growth measures when evaluating teachers.

This was also highlighted in a news article, released yesterday, here, with this one more generally about how teachers throughout Texas will no longer be evaluated using their students’ test scores, again, as required by the state.

At the crux of this case, as also highlighted in this particular piece, and to which I testified (quite extensively), was that the value-added measures formerly required/suggested by the state did not constitute teachers’ “observable,” job-related behaviors. See also a prior post about this case here.


Cases Contributing to this Ruling:

1. Texas State Teachers Association v. Texas Education Agency, Mike Morath, in his Official Capacity as Commissioner of Education for the State of Texas; in the 345th Judicial District Court, Travis County, Texas

2. Texas Classroom Teachers Association v. Mike Morath, Texas Commissioner of Education; in the 419th Judicial District Court, Travis County, Texas

3. Texas American Federation of Teachers v. Mike Morath, Commissioner of Education, in his official capacity, and Texas Education Agency; in the 201st Judicial District Court, Travis County, Texas

4. Association of Texas Professional Educators v. Mike Morath, the Commissioner of Education and the Texas Education Agency; in the 200th District Court of Travis County, Texas.

Breaking News: A Big Victory in Court in Houston

Recall from multiple prior posts (see here, here, here, and here) that a set of teachers in the Houston Independent School District (HISD), with the support of the Houston Federation of Teachers (HFT) and the American Federation of Teachers (AFT), took their district to federal court to fight against the (mis)use of their value-added scores, derived via the Education Value-Added Assessment System (EVAAS) — the “original” value-added model (VAM) developed in Tennessee by William L. Sanders who just recently passed away (see here). Teachers’ EVAAS scores, in short, were being used to evaluate teachers in Houston in more consequential ways than anywhere else in the nation (e.g., the termination of 221 teachers in just one year as based, primarily, on their EVAAS scores).

The case — Houston Federation of Teachers et al. v. Houston ISD — was filed in 2014 and just yesterday, United States Magistrate Judge Stephen Wm. Smith denied in the United States District Court, Southern District of Texas, the district’s request for summary judgment given the plaintiffs’ due process claims. Put differently, Judge Smith ruled that the plaintiffs’ did have legitimate claims regarding how EVAAS use in HISD was a violation of their Fourteenth Amendment due process protections (i.e., no state or in this case organization shall deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process). Hence, on this charge, this case is officially going to trial.

This is a huge victory, and one unprecedented that will likely set precedent, trial pending, for others, and more specifically other teachers.

Of primary issue will be the following (as taken from Judge Smith’s Summary Judgment released yesterday): “Plaintiffs [will continue to] challenge the use of EVAAS under various aspects of the Fourteenth Amendment, including: (1) procedural due process, due to lack of sufficient information to meaningfully challenge terminations based on low EVAAS scores,” and given “due process is designed to foster government decision-making that is both fair and accurate.”

Related, and of most importance, as also taken directly from Judge Smith’s Summary, he wrote:

  • HISD’s value-added appraisal system poses a realistic threat to deprive plaintiffs of constitutionally protected property interests in employment.
  • HISD does not itself calculate the EVAAS score for any of its teachers. Instead, that task is delegated to its third party vendor, SAS. The scores are generated by complex algorithms, employing “sophisticated software and many layers of calculations.” SAS treats these algorithms and software as trade secrets, refusing to divulge them to either HISD or the teachers themselves. HISD has admitted that it does not itself verify or audit the EVAAS scores received from SAS, nor does it engage any contractor to do so. HISD further concedes that any effort by teachers to replicate their own scores, with the limited information available to them, will necessarily fail. This has been confirmed by plaintiffs’ expert, who was unable to replicate the scores despite being given far greater access to the underlying computer codes than is available to an individual teacher [emphasis added, as also related to a prior post about how SAS claimed that plaintiffs violated SAS’s protective order (protecting its trade secrets), that the court overruled, see here].
  • The EVAAS score might be erroneously calculated for any number of reasons, ranging from data-entry mistakes to glitches in the computer code itself. Algorithms are human creations, and subject to error like any other human endeavor. HISD has acknowledged that mistakes can occur in calculating a teacher’s EVAAS score; moreover, even when a mistake is found in a particular teacher’s score, it will not be promptly corrected. As HISD candidly explained in response to a frequently asked question, “Why can’t my value-added analysis be recalculated?”:
    • Once completed, any re-analysis can only occur at the system level. What this means is that if we change information for one teacher, we would have to re- run the analysis for the entire district, which has two effects: one, this would be very costly for the district, as the analysis itself would have to be paid for again; and two, this re-analysis has the potential to change all other teachers’ reports.
  • The remarkable thing about this passage is not simply that cost considerations trump accuracy in teacher evaluations, troubling as that might be. Of greater concern is the house-of-cards fragility of the EVAAS system, where the wrong score of a single teacher could alter the scores of every other teacher in the district. This interconnectivity means that the accuracy of one score hinges upon the accuracy of all. Thus, without access to data supporting all teacher scores, any teacher facing discharge for a low value-added score will necessarily be unable to verify that her own score is error-free.
  • HISD’s own discovery responses and witnesses concede that an HISD teacher is unable to verify or replicate his EVAAS score based on the limited information provided by HISD.
  • According to the unrebutted testimony of plaintiffs’ expert, without access to SAS’s proprietary information – the value-added equations, computer source codes, decision rules, and assumptions – EVAAS scores will remain a mysterious “black box,” impervious to challenge.
  • While conceding that a teacher’s EVAAS score cannot be independently verified, HISD argues that the Constitution does not require the ability to replicate EVAAS scores “down to the last decimal point.” But EVAAS scores are calculated to the second decimal place, so an error as small as one hundredth of a point could spell the difference between a positive or negative EVAAS effectiveness rating, with serious consequences for the affected teacher.

Hence, “When a public agency adopts a policy of making high stakes employment decisions based on secret algorithms incompatible with minimum due process, the proper remedy is to overturn the policy.”

Moreover, he wrote, that all of this is part of the violation of teaches’ Fourteenth Amendment rights. Hence, he also wrote, “On this summary judgment record, HISD teachers have no meaningful way to ensure correct calculation of their EVAAS scores, and as a result are unfairly subject to mistaken deprivation of constitutionally protected property interests in their jobs.”

Otherwise, Judge Smith granted summary judgment to the district on the other claims forwarded by the plaintiffs, including plaintiffs’ equal protection claims. All of us involved in the case — recall that Jesse Rothstein and I served as the expert witnesses on behalf of the plaintiffs, and Thomas Kane of the Measures of Effective Teaching (MET) Project and John Friedman of the infamous Chetty et al. studies (see here and here) served as the expert witnesses on behalf of the defendants — knew that all of the plaintiffs’ claims would be tough to win given all of the constitutional legal standards would be difficult for plaintiffs to satisfy (e.g., that evaluating teachers using their value-added scores was not “unreasonable” was difficult to prove, as it was in the Tennessee case we also fought and was then dismissed on similar grounds (see here)).

Nonetheless, that “we” survived on the due process claim is fantastic, especially as this is the first case like this of which we are aware across the country.

Here is the press release, released last night by the AFT:

May 4, 2017 – AFT, Houston Federation of Teachers Hail Court Ruling on Flawed Evaluation System

Statements by American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten and Houston Federation of Teachers President Zeph Capo on U.S. District Court decision on Houston’s Evaluation Value-Added Assessment System (EVAAS), known elsewhere as VAM or value-added measures:

AFT President Randi Weingarten: “Houston developed an incomprehensible, unfair and secret algorithm to evaluate teachers that had no rational meaning. This is the algebraic formula: = + (Σ∗≤Σ∗∗ × ∗∗∗∗=1)+

“U.S. Magistrate Judge Stephen Smith saw that it was seriously flawed and posed a threat to teachers’ employment rights; he rejected it. This is a huge victory for Houston teachers, their students and educators’ deeply held contention that VAM is a sham.

“The judge said teachers had no way to ensure that EVAAS was correctly calculating their performance score, nor was there a way to promptly correct a mistake. Judge Smith added that the proper remedy is to overturn the policy; we wholeheartedly agree. Teaching must be about helping kids develop the skills and knowledge they need to be prepared for college, career and life—not be about focusing on test scores for punitive purposes.”

HFT President Zeph Capo: “With this decision, Houston should wipe clean the record of every teacher who was negatively evaluated. From here on, teacher evaluation systems should be developed with educators to ensure that they are fair, transparent and help inform instruction, not be used as a punitive tool.”