Alabama’s “New” Accountability System: Part II

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In a prior post, about whether the state of “Alabama is the New, New Mexico,” I wrote about a draft bill in Alabama to be called the Rewarding Advancement in Instruction and Student Excellence (RAISE) Act of 2016. This has since been renamed the Preparing and Rewarding Educational Professionals (PREP) Bill (to be Act) of 2016. The bill was introduced by its sponsoring Republican Senator Marsh last Tuesday, and its public hearing is scheduled for tomorrow. I review the bill below, and attach it here for others who are interested in reading it in full.

First, the bill is to “provide a procedure for observing and evaluating teachers, principals, and assistant principals on performance and student achievement…[using student growth]…to isolate the effect and impact of a teacher on student learning, controlling for pre-existing characteristics of a student including, but not limited to, prior achievement.” Student growth is still one of the bill’s key components, with growth set at a 25% weight, and this is still written into this bill regardless of the fact that the new federal Elementary Student Success Act (ESSA) no longer requires teacher-level growth as a component of states’ educational reform legislation. In other words, states are no longer required to do this, but apparently the state/Senator Marsh still wants to move forward in this regard, regardless (and regardless of the research evidence). The student growth model is to be selected by October 1, 2016. On this my offer (as per my prior post) still stands. I would  be more than happy to help the state negotiate this contract, pro bono, and much more wisely than so many other states and districts have negotiated similar contracts thus far (e.g., without asking for empirical evidence as a continuous contractual deliverable).

Second, and related, nothing is written about the ongoing research and evaluation of the state system, that is absolutely necessary in order to ensure the system is working as intended, especially before any types of consequential decisions are to be made (e.g., school bonuses, teachers’ denial of tenure, teacher termination, teacher termination due to a reduction in force). All that is mentioned is that things like stakeholder perceptions, general outcomes, and local compliance with the state will be monitored. Without evidence in hand, in advance and preferably as externally vetted and validated, the state will very likely be setting itself up for some legal trouble.

Third, to measure growth the state is set to use student performance data on state tests, as well as data derived via the ACT Aspire examination, American College Test (ACT), and “any number of measures from the department developed list of preapproved options for governing boards to utilize to measure student achievement growth.” As mentioned in my prior post about Alabama (linked to again here), this is precisely what has gotten the whole state of New Mexico wrapped up in, and quasi-losing their ongoing lawsuit. While providing districts with menus of off-the-shelf and other assessment options might make sense to policymakers, any self respecting researcher should know why this is entirely inappropriate. To read more about this, the best research study explaining why doing just this will set any state up for lawsuits comes from Brown University’s John Papay in his highly esteemed and highly cited “Different tests, different answers: The stability of teacher value-added estimates across outcome measures” article. The title of this research article alone should explain enough why simply positioning and offering up such tests in such casual ways makes way for legal recourse.

Fourth, the bill is to increase the number of years it will take Alabama teachers to earn tenure, requiring that teachers teach for at least five years, of which at least three  consecutive years of “satisfies expectations,” “exceeds expectations,” or “significantly exceeds expectations” are demonstrated via the state’s evaluation system prior to earning tenure. Clearly the state does not understand the current issues with value-added/growth levels of reliability, or consistency, or lack thereof, that are altogether preventing such consistent classifications of teachers over time. Inversely, what is consistently evident across all growth models is that estimates are very inconsistent from year to year, which will likely thwart what the bill has written into it here, as such a theoretically simple proposition. For example, the common statistic still cited in this regard is that a  teacher classified as “adding value” has a 25% to 50% chance of being classified as “subtracting value” the following year(s), and vice versa. This sometimes makes the probability of a teacher being consistently identified as (in)effective, from year-to-year, no different than the flip of a coin, and this is true when there are at least three years of data (which is standard practice and is also written into this bill as a minimum requirement).

Unless the state plans on “artificially conflating” scores, by manufacturing and forcing the oft-unreliable growth data to fit or correlate with teachers’ observational data (two observations per year are to be required), and/or survey data (student surveys are to be used for teachers of students in grades three and above), such consistency is thus far impossible unless deliberately manipulated (see a recent post here about how “artificial conflation” is one of the fundamental and critical points of litigation in another lawsuit in Houston). Related, this bill is also to allow a governing board to evaluate a tenured teacher as per his/her similar classifications every other year, and is to subject a tenured teacher who received a rating of below or significantly below expectations for two consecutive evaluations to personnel action.

Fifth and finally, the bill is also to use an allocated $5,000,000 to recruit teachers, $3,000,000 to mentor teachers, and $10,000,000 to reward the top 10% of schools in the state as per their demonstrated performance. The latter of these is the most consequential as per the state’s use of its planned growth data at the school level (see other teacher-level consequences to be attached to growth output above); hence, the comments about needing empirical evidence to justify such allocations prior to the distributions of such monies is important to underscore again. Likewise, given levels of bias in value-added/growth output are worse at the state versus teacher levels, I would also caution the state against rewarding schools, again in this regard, for what might not really be schools’ causal impacts on student growth over time, after all. See, for example, here, here, and here.

As I also mentioned in my prior post on Alabama, for those of you who have access to educational leaders there, do send them this post too, so they might be a bit more proactive, and appropriately more careful and cautious, before going down what continues to demonstrate itself as a poor educational policy path. While I do embrace my professional responsibility as a public scholar to be called to court to testify about all of this when such high-stakes consequences are ultimately, yet inappropriately based upon invalid inferences, I’d much rather be proactive in this regard and save states and states’ taxpayers their time and money, respectively.

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