Special Issue of “Educational Researcher” (Paper #8 of 9, Part I): A More Research-Based Assessment of VAMs’ Potentials

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Recall that the peer-reviewed journal Educational Researcher (ER) – published a “Special Issue” including nine articles examining value-added measures (VAMs). I have reviewed the next of nine articles (#8 of 9), which is actually a commentary titled “Can Value-Added Add Value to Teacher Evaluation?” This commentary is authored by Linda Darling-Hammond – Professor of Education, Emeritus, at Stanford University.

Like with the last commentary reviewed here, Darling-Hammond reviews some of the key points taken from the five feature articles in the aforementioned “Special Issue.” More specifically, though, Darling-Hammond “reflect[s] on [these five] articles’ findings in light of other work in this field, and [she] offer[s her own] thoughts about whether and how VAMs may add value to teacher evaluation” (p. 132).

She starts her commentary with VAMs “in theory,” in that VAMs COULD accurately identify teachers’ contributions to student learning and achievement IF (and this is a big IF) the following three conditions were met: (1) “student learning is well-measured by tests that reflect valuable learning and the actual achievement of individual students along a vertical scale representing the full range of possible achievement measures in equal interval units” (2) “students are randomly assigned to teachers within and across schools—or, conceptualized another way, the learning conditions and traits of the group of students assigned to one teacher do not vary substantially from those assigned to another;” and (3) “individual teachers are the only contributors to students’ learning over the period of time used for measuring gains” (p. 132).

None of things are actual true (or near to true, nor will they likely ever be true) in educational practice, however. Hence, the errors we continue to observe that continue to prevent VAM use for their intended utilities, even with the sophisticated statistics meant to mitigate errors and account for the above-mentioned, let’s call them, “less than ideal” conditions.

Other pervasive and perpetual issues surrounding VAMs as highlighted by Darling-Hammond, per each of the three categories above, pertain to (1) the tests used to measure value-added is that the tests are very narrow, focus on lower level skills, and are manipulable. These tests in their current form cannot effectively measure the learning gains of a large share of students who are above or below grade level given a lack of sufficient coverage and stretch. As per Haertel (2013, as cited in Darling-Hammond’s commentary), this “translates into bias against those teachers working with the lowest-performing or the highest-performing classes’…and “those who teach in tracked school settings.” It is also important to note here that the new tests created by the Partnership for Assessing Readiness for College and Careers (PARCC) and Smarter Balanced, multistate consortia “will not remedy this problem…Even though they will report students’ scores on a vertical scale, they will not be able to measure accurately the achievement or learning of students who started out below or above grade level” (p.133).

With respect to (2) above, on the equivalence (or rather non-equivalence) of groups of student across teachers classrooms who are the ones whose VAM scores are relativistically compared, the main issue here is that “the U.S. education system is the one of most segregated and unequal in the industrialized world…[likewise]…[t]he country’s extraordinarily high rates of childhood poverty, homelessness, and food insecurity are not randomly distributed across communities…[Add] the extensive practice of tracking to the mix, and it is clear that the assumption of equivalence among classrooms is far from reality” (p. 133). Whether sophisticated statistics can control for all of this variation is one of most debated issues surrounding VAMs and their levels of outcome bias, accordingly.

And as per (3) above, “we know from decades of educational research that many things matter for student achievement aside from the individual teacher a student has at a moment in time for a given subject area. A partial list includes the following [that are also supposed to be statistically controlled for in most VAMs, but are also clearly not controlled for effectively enough, if even possible]: (a) school factors such as class sizes, curriculum choices, instructional time, availability of specialists, tutors, books, computers, science labs, and other resources; (b) prior teachers and schooling, as well as other current teachers—and the opportunities for professional learning and collaborative planning among them; (c) peer culture and achievement; (d) differential summer learning gains and losses; (e) home factors, such as parents’ ability to help with homework, food and housing security, and physical and mental support or abuse; and (e) individual student needs, health, and attendance” (p. 133).

“Given all of these influences on [student] learning [and achievement], it is not surprising that variation among teachers accounts for only a tiny share of variation in achievement, typically estimated at under 10%” (see, for example, highlights from the American Statistical Association’s (ASA’s) Position Statement on VAMs here). “Suffice it to say [these issues]…pose considerable challenges to deriving accurate estimates of teacher effects…[A]s the ASA suggests, these challenges may have unintended negative effects on overall educational quality” (p. 133). “Most worrisome [for example] are [the] studies suggesting that teachers’ ratings are heavily influenced [i.e., biased] by the students they teach even after statistical models have tried to control for these influences” (p. 135).

Other “considerable challenges” include: VAM output are grossly unstable given the swings and variations observed in teacher classifications across time, and VAM output are “notoriously imprecise” (p. 133) given the other errors observed as caused, for example, by varying class sizes (e.g., Sean Corcoran (2010) documented with New York City data that the “true” effectiveness of a teacher ranked in the 43rd percentile could have had a range of possible scores from the 15th to the 71st percentile, qualifying as “below average,” “average,” or close to “above average). In addition, practitioners including administrators and teachers are skeptical of these systems, and their (appropriate) skepticisms are impacting the extent to which they use and value their value-added data, noting that they value their observational data (and the professional discussions surrounding them) much more. Also important is that another likely unintended effect exists (i.e., citing Susan Moore Johnson’s essay here) when statisticians’ efforts to parse out learning to calculate individual teachers’ value-added causes “teachers to hunker down and focus only on their own students, rather than working collegially to address student needs and solve collective problems” (p. 134). Related, “the technology of VAM ranks teachers against each other relative to the gains they appear to produce for students, [hence] one teacher’s gain is another’s loss, thus creating disincentives for collaborative work” (p. 135). This is what Susan Moore Johnson termed the egg-crate model, or rather the egg-crate effects.

Darling-Hammond’s conclusions are that VAMs have “been prematurely thrust into policy contexts that have made it more the subject of advocacy than of careful analysis that shapes its use. There is [good] reason to be skeptical that the current prescriptions for using VAMs can ever succeed in measuring teaching contributions well (p. 135).

Darling-Hammond also “adds value” in one whole section (highlighted in another post forthcoming here), offering a very sound set of solutions, using VAMs for teacher evaluations or not. Given it’s rare in this area of research we can focus on actual solutions, this section is a must read. If you don’t want to wait for the next post, read Darling-Hammond’s “Modest Proposal” (p. 135-136) within her larger article here.

In the end, Darling-Hammond writes that, “Trying to fix VAMs is rather like pushing on a balloon: The effort to correct one problem often creates another one that pops out somewhere else” (p. 135).


If interested, see the Review of Article #1 – the introduction to the special issue here; see the Review of Article #2 – on VAMs’ measurement errors, issues with retroactive revisions, and (more) problems with using standardized tests in VAMs here; see the Review of Article #3 – on VAMs’ potentials here; see the Review of Article #4 – on observational systems’ potentials here; see the Review of Article #5 – on teachers’ perceptions of observations and student growth here; see the Review of Article (Essay) #6 – on VAMs as tools for “egg-crate” schools here; and see the Review of Article (Commentary) #7 – on VAMs situated in their appropriate ecologies here.

Article #8, Part I Reference: Darling-Hammond, L. (2015). Can value-added add value to teacher evaluation? Educational Researcher, 44(2), 132-137. doi:10.3102/0013189X15575346

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2 thoughts on “Special Issue of “Educational Researcher” (Paper #8 of 9, Part I): A More Research-Based Assessment of VAMs’ Potentials

  1. Thank you for your continuing efforts to help us sort out Value Added Measures. Please keep on keeping on. You are sort of taking the Gerald Bracey space which was vacated when he passed on. Perhaps you could broaden your reach to encompass additional assessment issues.

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