Houston Lawsuit Update, with Summary of Expert Witnesses’ Findings about the EVAAS

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Recall from a prior post that a set of teachers in the Houston Independent School District (HISD), with the support of the Houston Federation of Teachers (HFT) are taking their district to federal court to fight for their rights as professionals, and how their value-added scores, derived via the Education Value-Added Assessment System (EVAAS), have allegedly violated them. The case, Houston Federation of Teachers, et al. v. Houston ISD, is to officially begin in court early this summer.

More specifically, the teachers are arguing that EVAAS output are inaccurate, the EVAAS is unfair, that teachers are being evaluated via the EVAAS using tests that do not match the curriculum they are to teach, that the EVAAS system fails to control for student-level factors that impact how well teachers perform but that are outside of teachers’ control (e.g., parental effects), that the EVAAS is incomprehensible and hence very difficult if not impossible to actually use to improve upon their instruction (i.e., actionable), and, accordingly, that teachers’ due process rights are being violated because teachers do not have adequate opportunities to change as a results of their EVAAS results.

The EVAAS is the one value-added model (VAM) on which I’ve conducted most of my research, also in this district (see, for example, here, here, here, and here); hence, I along with Jesse Rothstein – Professor of Public Policy and Economics at the University of California – Berkeley, who also conducts extensive research on VAMs – are serving as the expert witnesses in this case.

What was recently released regarding this case is a summary of the contents of our affidavits, as interpreted by authors of the attached “EVAAS Litigation UPdate,” in which the authors declare, with our and others’ research in support, that “Studies Declare EVAAS ‘Flawed, Invalid and Unreliable.” Here are the twelve key highlights, again, as summarized by the authors of this report and re-summarized, by me, below:

  1. Large-scale standardized tests have never been validated for their current uses. In other words, as per my affidavit, “VAM-based information is based upon large-scale achievement tests that have been developed to assess levels of student achievement, but not levels of growth in student achievement over time, and not levels of growth in student achievement over time that can be attributed back to students’ teachers, to capture the teachers’ [purportedly] causal effects on growth in student achievement over time.”
  2. The EVAAS produces different results from another VAM. When, for this case, Rothstein constructed and ran an alternative, albeit sophisticated VAM using data from HISD both times, he found that results “yielded quite different rankings and scores.” This should not happen if these models are indeed yielding indicators of truth, or true levels of teacher effectiveness from which valid interpretations and assertions can be made.
  3. EVAAS scores are highly volatile from one year to the next. Rothstein, when running the actual data, found that while “[a]ll VAMs are volatile…EVAAS growth indexes and effectiveness categorizations are particularly volatile due to the EVAAS model’s failure to adequately account for unaccounted-for variation in classroom achievement.” In addition, volatility is “particularly high in grades 3 and 4, where students have relatively few[er] prior [test] scores available at the time at which the EVAAS scores are first computed.”
  4. EVAAS overstates the precision of teachers’ estimated impacts on growth. As per Rothstein, “This leads EVAAS to too often indicate that teachers are statistically distinguishable from the average…when a correct calculation would indicate that these teachers are not statistically distinguishable from the average.”
  5. Teachers of English Language Learners (ELLs) and “highly mobile” students are substantially less likely to demonstrate added value, as per the EVAAS, and likely most/all other VAMs. This, what we term as “bias,” makes it “impossible to know whether this is because ELL teachers [and teachers of highly mobile students] are, in fact, less effective than non-ELL teachers [and teachers of less mobile students] in HISD, or whether it is because the EVAAS VAM is biased against ELL [and these other] teachers.”
  6. The number of students each teacher teaches (i.e., class size) also biases teachers’ value-added scores. As per Rothstein, “teachers with few linked students—either because they teach small classes or because many of the students in their classes cannot be used for EVAAS calculations—are overwhelmingly [emphasis added] likely to be assigned to the middle effectiveness category under EVAAS (labeled “no detectable difference [from average], and average effectiveness”) than are teachers with more linked students.”
  7. Ceiling effects are certainly an issue. Rothstein found that in some grades and subjects, “teachers whose students have unusually high prior year scores are very unlikely to earn high EVAAS scores, suggesting that ‘ceiling effects‘ in the tests are certainly relevant factors.” While EVAAS and HISD have previously acknowledged such problems with ceiling effects, they apparently believe these effects are being mediated with the new and improved tests recently adopted throughout the state of Texas. Rothstein, however, found that these effects persist even given the new and improved.
  8. There are major validity issues with “artificial conflation.” This is a term I recently coined to represent what is happening in Houston, and elsewhere (e.g., Tennessee), when district leaders (e.g., superintendents) mandate or force principals and other teacher effectiveness appraisers or evaluators, for example, to align their observational ratings of teachers’ effectiveness with value-added scores, with the latter being the “objective measure” around which all else should revolve, or align; hence, the conflation of the one to match the other, even if entirely invalid. As per my affidavit, “[t]o purposefully and systematically endorse the engineering and distortion of the perceptible ‘subjective’ indicator, using the perceptibly ‘objective’ indicator as a keystone of truth and consequence, is more than arbitrary, capricious, and remiss…not to mention in violation of the educational measurement field’s Standards for Educational and Psychological Testing” (American Educational Research Association (AERA), American Psychological Association (APA), National Council on Measurement in Education (NCME), 2014).
  9. Teaching-to-the-test is of perpetual concern. Both Rothstein and I, independently, noted concerns about how “VAM ratings reward teachers who teach to the end-of-year test [more than] equally effective teachers who focus their efforts on other forms of learning that may be more important.”
  10. HISD is not adequately monitoring the EVAAS system. According to HISD, EVAAS modelers keep the details of their model secret, even from them and even though they are paying an estimated $500K per year for district teachers’ EVAAS estimates. “During litigation, HISD has admitted that it has not performed or paid any contractor to perform any type of verification, analysis, or audit of the EVAAS scores. This violates the technical standards for use of VAM that AERA specifies, which provide that if a school district like HISD is going to use VAM, it is responsible for ‘conducting the ongoing evaluation of both intended and unintended consequences’ and that ‘monitoring should be of sufficient scope and extent to provide evidence to document the technical quality of the VAM application and the validity of its use’ (AERA Statement, 2015).
  11. EVAAS lacks transparency. AERA emphasizes the importance of transparency with respect to VAM uses. For example, as per the AERA Council who wrote the aforementioned AERA Statement, “when performance levels are established for the purpose of evaluative decisions, the methods used, as well as the classification accuracy, should be documented and reported” (AERA Statement, 2015). However, and in contrast to meeting AERA’s requirements for transparency, in this district and elsewhere, as per my affidavit, the “EVAAS is still more popularly recognized as the ‘black box’ value-added system.”
  12. Related, teachers lack opportunities to verify their own scores. This part is really interesting. “As part of this litigation, and under a very strict protective order that was negotiated over many months with SAS [i.e., SAS Institute Inc. which markets and delivers its EVAAS system], Dr. Rothstein was allowed to view SAS’ computer program code on a laptop computer in the SAS lawyer’s office in San Francisco, something that certainly no HISD teacher has ever been allowed to do. Even with the access provided to Dr. Rothstein, and even with his expertise and knowledge of value-added modeling, [however] he was still not able to reproduce the EVAAS calculations so that they could be verified.”Dr. Rothstein added, “[t]he complexity and interdependency of EVAAS also presents a barrier to understanding how a teacher’s data translated into her EVAAS score. Each teacher’s EVAAS calculation depends not only on her students, but also on all other students with- in HISD (and, in some grades and years, on all other students in the state), and is computed using a complex series of programs that are the proprietary business secrets of SAS Incorporated. As part of my efforts to assess the validity of EVAAS as a measure of teacher effectiveness, I attempted to reproduce EVAAS calculations. I was unable to reproduce EVAAS, however, as the information provided by HISD about the EVAAS model was far from sufficient.”
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One thought on “Houston Lawsuit Update, with Summary of Expert Witnesses’ Findings about the EVAAS

  1. Excellent summary. About five years ago I asked the Ohio Department of Education for a copy of the contract with SAS for the EVASS evaluation. I received it and at the time also learned that the VAM formula was proprietary. I was also given copies of the Sanders research papers then used to market EVASS and respond to criticsof EVASS. Much hot air in those papers, only one peer reviewed. I also looked at the use of VAM in the MET study to claim validity (sort of) for the observations based on Danielson’s protocol, ratings based on edited videos, and Ron Feguson’s student surveys. The MET study is a perfect case of artificial conflation. Keep using that phrase. It is appropriate. Another instance is is the use of VAM as a ” distributed score” for teachers of subjects for which there are not statewide tests.

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