One Score and Seven Policy Iterations Ago…

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I just read what might be one of the best articles I’ve read in a long time on using test scores to measure teacher effectiveness, and why this is such a bad idea. Not surprisingly, unfortunately, this article was written 20 years ago (i.e., 1986) by – Edward Haertel, National Academy of Education member and recently retired Professor at Stanford University. If the name sounds familiar, it should as Professor Emeritus Haertel is one of the best on the topic of, and history behind VAMs (see prior posts about his related scholarship here, here, and here). To access the full article, please scroll to the reference at the bottom of this post.

Heartel wrote this article when at the time policymakers were, like they still are now, trying to hold teachers accountable for their students’ learning as measured on states’ standardized test scores. Although this article deals with minimum competency tests, which were in policy fashion at the time, about seven policy iterations ago, the contents of the article still have much relevance given where we are today — investing in “new and improved” Common Core tests and still riding on unsinkable beliefs that this is the way to reform the schools that have been in despair and (still) in need of major repair since 20+ years ago.

Here are some of the points I found of most “value:”

  • On isolating teacher effects: “Inferring teacher competence from test scores requires the isolation of teaching effects from other major influences on student test performance,” while “the task is to support an interpretation of student test performance as reflecting teacher competence by providing evidence against plausible rival hypotheses or interpretation.” While “student achievement depends on multiple factors, many of which are out of the teacher’s control,” and many of which cannot and likely never will be able to be “controlled.” In terms of home supports, “students enjoy varying levels of out-of-school support for learning. Not only may parental support and expectations influence student motivation and effort, but some parents may share directly in the task of instruction itself, reading with children, for example, or assisting them with homework.” In terms of school supports, “[s]choolwide learning climate refers to the host of factors that make a school more than a collection of self-contained classrooms. Where the principal is a strong instructional leader; where schoolwide policies on attendance, drug use, and discipline are consistently enforced; where the dominant peer culture is achievement-oriented; and where the school is actively supported by parents and the community.” This, all, makes isolating the teacher effect nearly if not wholly impossible.
  • On the difficulties with defining the teacher effect: “Does it include homework? Does it include self-directed study initiated by the student? How about tutoring by a parent or an older sister or brother? For present purposes, instruction logically refers to whatever the teacher being evaluated is responsible for, but there are degrees of responsibility, and it is often shared. If a teacher informs parents of a student’s learning difficulties and they arrange for private tutoring, is the teacher responsible for the student’s improvement? Suppose the teacher merely gives the student low marks, the student informs her parents, and they arrange for a tutor? Should teachers be credited with inspiring a student’s independent study of school subjects? There is no time to dwell on these difficulties; others lie ahead. Recognizing that some ambiguity remains, it may suffice to define instruction as any learning activity directed by the teacher, including homework….The question also must be confronted of what knowledge counts as achievement. The math teacher who digresses into lectures on beekeeping may be effective in communicating information, but for purposes of teacher evaluation the learning outcomes will not match those of a colleague who sticks to quadratic equations.” Much if not all of this cannot and likely never will be able to be “controlled” or “factored” in or our, as well.
  • On standardized tests: The best of standardized tests will (likely) always be too imperfect and not up to the teacher evaluation task, no matter the extent to which they are pitched as “new and improved.” While it might appear that these “problem[s] could be solved with better tests,” they cannot. Ultimately, all that these tests provide is “a sample of student performance. The inference that this performance reflects educational achievement [not to mention teacher effectiveness] is probabilistic [emphasis added], and is only justified under certain conditions.” Likewise, these tests “measure only a subset of important learning objectives, and if teachers are rated on their students’ attainment of just those outcomes, instruction of unmeasured objectives [is also] slighted.” Like it was then as it still is today, “it has become a commonplace that standardized student achievement tests are ill-suited for teacher evaluation.”
  • On the multiple choice formats of such tests: “[A] multiple-choice item remains a recognition task, in which the problem is to find the best of a small number of predetermined alternatives and the cri- teria for comparing the alternatives are well defined. The nonacademic situations where school learning is ultimately ap- plied rarely present problems in this neat, closed form. Discovery and definition of the problem itself and production of a variety of solutions are called for, not selection among a set of fixed alternatives.”
  • On students and the scores they are to contribute to the teacher evaluation formula: “Students varying in their readiness to profit from instruction are said to differ in aptitude. Not only general cognitive abilities, but relevant prior instruction, motivation, and specific inter- actions of these and other learner characteristics with features of the curriculum and instruction will affect academic growth.” In other words, one cannot simply assume all students will learn or grow at the same rate with the same teacher. Rather, they will learn at different rates given their aptitudes, their “readiness to profit from instruction,” the teachers’ instruction, and sometimes despite the teachers’ instruction or what the teacher teaches.
  • And on the formative nature of such tests, as it was then: “Teachers rarely consult standardized test results except, perhaps, for initial grouping or placement of students, and they believe that the tests are of more value to school or district administrators than to themselves.”

Sound familiar?

Reference: Haertel, E. (1986). The valid use of student performance measures for teacher evaluation. Educational Evaluation and Policy Analysis, 8(1), 45-60.

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One thought on “One Score and Seven Policy Iterations Ago…

  1. “Heartel wrote this article when at the time policymakers were, like they still are now, trying to hold teachers accountable for their students’ learning as measured on states’ standardized test scores.”

    Yes, and why? Even now VAM is rationalized as a good-enough measure, based on the Coleman report—and a not very fine reading of that.
    The most important in-school factor on achievement is the teacher…. therefore we look at the increments in test scores that teachers produce, within year, and year to year, then judge the “quality” of the teacher by this estimate of “effectiveness.”
    You double down on this policy and you are “entitled” to ignore all of the out-of-school influences, which are too numerous and varied and complicated to address.

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