A North Carolina Teacher’s Guest Post on His/Her EVAAS Scores

A teacher from the state of North Carolina recently emailed me for my advice regarding how to help him/her read and understand his/her recently received Education Value-Added Assessment System (EVAAS) value added scores. You likely recall that the EVAAS is the model I cover most on this blog, also in that this is the system I have researched the most, as well as the proprietary system adopted by multiple states (e.g., Ohio, North Carolina, and South Carolina) and districts across the country for which taxpayers continue to pay big $. Of late, this is also the value-added model (VAM) of sole interest in the recent lawsuit that teachers won in Houston (see here).

You might also recall that the EVAAS is the system developed by the now late William Sanders (see here), who ultimately sold it to SAS Institute Inc. that now holds all rights to the VAM (see also prior posts about the EVAAS here, here, here, here, here, and here). It is also important to note, because this teacher teaches in North Carolina where SAS Institute Inc. is located and where its CEO James Goodnight is considered the richest man in the state, that as a major Grand Old Party (GOP) donor “he” helps to set all of of the state’s education policy as the state is also dominated by Republicans. All of this also means that it is unlikely EVAAS will go anywhere unless there is honest and open dialogue about the shortcomings of the data.

Hence, the attempt here is to begin at least some honest and open dialogue herein. Accordingly, here is what this teacher wrote in response to my request that (s)he write a guest post:

***

SAS Institute Inc. claims that the EVAAS enables teachers to “modify curriculum, student support and instructional strategies to address the needs of all students.”  My goal this year is to see whether these claims are actually possible or true. I’d like to dig deep into the data made available to me — for which my state pays over $3.6 million per year — in an effort to see what these data say about my instruction, accordingly.

For starters, here is what my EVAAS-based growth looks like over the past three years:

As you can see, three years ago I met my expected growth, but my growth measure was slightly below zero. The year after that I knocked it out of the park. This past year I was right in the middle of my prior two years of results. Notice the volatility [aka an issue with VAM-based reliability, or consistency, or a lack thereof; see, for example, here].

Notwithstanding, SAS Institute Inc. makes the following recommendations in terms of how I should approach my data:

Reflecting on Your Teaching Practice: Learn to use your Teacher reports to reflect on the effectiveness of your instructional delivery.

The Teacher Value Added report displays value-added data across multiple years for the same subject and grade or course. As you review the report, you’ll want to ask these questions:

  • Looking at the Growth Index for the most recent year, were you effective at helping students to meet or exceed the Growth Standard?
  • If you have multiple years of data, are the Growth Index values consistent across years? Is there a positive or negative trend?
  • If there is a trend, what factors might have contributed to that trend?
  • Based on this information, what strategies and instructional practices will you replicate in the current school year? What strategies and instructional practices will you change or refine to increase your success in helping students make academic growth?

Yet my growth index values are not consistent across years, as also noted above. Rather, my “trends” are baffling to me.  When I compare those three instructional years in my mind, nothing stands out to me in terms of differences in instructional strategies that would explain the fluctuations in growth measures, either.

So let’s take a closer look at my data for last year (i.e., 2016-2017).  I teach 7th grade English/language arts (ELA), so my numbers are based on my students reading grade 7 scores in the table below.

What jumps out for me here is the contradiction in “my” data for achievement Levels 3 and 4 (achievement levels start at Level 1 and top out at Level 5, whereas levels 3 and 4 are considered proficient/middle of the road).  There is moderate evidence that my grade 7 students who scored a Level 4 on the state reading test exceeded the Growth Standard.  But there is also moderate evidence that my same grade 7 students who scored Level 3 did not meet the Growth Standard.  At the same time, the number of students I had demonstrating proficiency on the same reading test (by scoring at least a 3) increased from 71% in 2015-2016 (when I exceeded expected growth) to 76% in school year 2016-2017 (when my growth declined significantly). This makes no sense, right?

Hence, and after considering my data above, the question I’m left with is actually really important:  Are the instructional strategies I’m using for my students whose achievement levels are in the middle working, or are they not?

I’d love to hear from other teachers on their interpretations of these data.  A tool that costs taxpayers this much money and impacts teacher evaluations in so many states should live up to its claims of being useful for informing our teaching.

The More Weight VAMs Carry, the More Teacher Effects (Will Appear to) Vary

Matthew A. Kraft — an Assistant Professor of Education & Economics at Brown University and co-author of an article published in Educational Researcher on “Revisiting The Widget Effect” (here), and another of his co-authors Matthew P. Steinberg — an Assistant Professor of Education Policy at the University of Pennsylvania — just published another article in this same journal on “The Sensitivity of Teacher Performance Ratings to the Design of Teacher Evaluation Systems” (see the full and freely accessible, at least for now, article here; see also its original and what should be enduring version here).

In this article, Steinberg and Kraft (2017) examine teacher performance measure weights while conducting multiple simulations of data taken from the Bill & Melinda Gates Measures of Effective Teaching (MET) studies. They conclude that “performance measure weights and ratings” surrounding teachers’ value-added, observational measures, and student survey indicators play “critical roles” when “determining teachers’ summative evaluation ratings and the distribution of teacher proficiency rates.” In other words, the weighting of teacher evaluation systems’ multiple measures matter, matter differently for different types of teachers within and across school districts and states, and matter also in that so often these weights are arbitrarily and politically defined and set.

Indeed, because “state and local policymakers have almost no empirically based evidence [emphasis added, although I would write “no empirically based evidence”] to inform their decision process about how to combine scores across multiple performance measures…decisions about [such] weights…are often made through a somewhat arbitrary and iterative process, one that is shaped by political considerations in place of empirical evidence” (Steinberg & Kraft, 2017, p. 379).

This is very important to note in that the consequences attached to these measures, also given the arbitrary and political constructions they represent, can be both professionally and personally, career and life changing, respectively. How and to what extent “the proportion of teachers deemed professionally proficient changes under different weighting and ratings thresholds schemes” (p. 379), then, clearly matters.

While Steinberg and Kraft (2017) have other key findings they also present throughout this piece, their most important finding, in my opinion, is that, again, “teacher proficiency rates change substantially as the weights assigned to teacher performance measures change” (p. 387). Moreover, the more weight assigned to measures with higher relative means (e.g., observational or student survey measures), the greater the rate by which teachers are rated effective or proficient, and vice versa (i.e., the more weight assigned to teachers’ value-added, the higher the rate by which teachers will be rated ineffective or inadequate; as also discussed on p. 388).

Put differently, “teacher proficiency rates are lowest across all [district and state] systems when norm-referenced teacher performance measures, such as VAMs [i.e., with scores that are normalized in line with bell curves, with a mean or average centered around the middle of the normal distributions], are given greater relative weight” (p. 389).

This becomes problematic when states or districts then use these weighted systems (again, weighted in arbitrary and political ways) to illustrate, often to the public, that their new-and-improved teacher evaluation systems, as inspired by the MET studies mentioned prior, are now “better” at differentiating between “good and bad” teachers. Thereafter, some states over others are then celebrated (e.g., by the National Center of Teacher Quality; see, for example, here) for taking the evaluation of teacher effects more seriously than others when, as evidenced herein, this is (unfortunately) more due to manipulation than true changes in these systems. Accordingly, the fact remains that the more weight VAMs carry, the more teacher effects (will appear to) vary. It’s not necessarily that they vary in reality, but the manipulation of the weights on the back end, rather, cause such variation and then lead to, quite literally, such delusions of grandeur in these regards (see also here).

At a more pragmatic level, this also suggests that the teacher evaluation ratings for the roughly 70% of teachers who are not VAM eligible “are likely to differ in systematic ways from the ratings of teachers for whom VAM scores can be calculated” (p. 392). This is precisely why evidence in New Mexico suggests VAM-eligible teachers are up to five times more likely to be ranked as “ineffective” or “minimally effective” than their non-VAM-eligible colleagues; that is, “[also b]ecause greater weight is consistently assigned to observation scores for teachers in nontested grades and subjects” (p. 392). This also causes a related but also important issue with fairness, whereas equally effective teachers, just by being VAM eligible, may be five-or-so times likely (e.g., in states like New Mexico) of being rated as ineffective by the mere fact that they are VAM eligible and their states, quite literally, “value” value-added “too much” (as also arbitrarily defined).

Finally, it should also be noted as an important caveat here, that the findings advanced by Steinberg and Kraft (2017) “are not intended to provide specific recommendations about what weights and ratings to select—such decisions are fundamentally subject to local district priorities and preferences. (p. 379). These findings do, however, “offer important insights about how these decisions will affect the distribution of teacher performance ratings as policymakers and administrators continue to refine and possibly remake teacher evaluation systems” (p. 379).

Related, please recall that via the MET studies one of the researchers’ goals was to determine which weights per multiple measure were empirically defensible. MET researchers failed to do so and then defaulted to recommending an equal distribution of weights without empirical justification (see also Rothstein & Mathis, 2013). This also means that anyone at any state or district level who might say that this weight here or that weight there is empirically defensible should be asked for the evidence in support.

Citations:

Rothstein, J., & Mathis, W. J. (2013, January). Review of two culminating reports from the MET Project. Boulder, CO: National Educational Policy Center. Retrieved from http://nepc.colorado.edu/thinktank/review-MET-final-2013

Steinberg, M. P., & Kraft, M. A. (2017). The sensitivity of teacher performance ratings to the design of teacher evaluation systems. Educational Researcher, 46(7), 378–
396. doi:10.3102/0013189X17726752 Retrieved from http://journals.sagepub.com/doi/abs/10.3102/0013189X17726752

Breaking News: The End of Value-Added Measures for Teacher Termination in Houston

Recall from multiple prior posts (see, for example, here, 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 any other district or state in the nation (e.g., the termination of 221 teachers in 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 one day ago (October 10, 2017) came the case’s final federal suit settlement. Click here to read the “Settlement and Full and Final Release Agreement.” But in short, this means the “End of Value-Added Measures for Teacher Termination in Houston” (see also here).

More specifically, recall that the judge notably ruled prior (in May of 2017) that the plaintiffs did have sufficient evidence to proceed to trial on their claims that the use of EVAAS in Houston to terminate their contracts was a violation of their Fourteenth Amendment due process protections (i.e., no state or in this case district shall deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process). That is, the judge ruled that “any effort by teachers to replicate their own scores, with the limited information available to them, [would] necessarily fail” (see here p. 13). This was confirmed by the one of the plaintiffs’ expert witness who was also “unable to replicate the scores despite being given far greater access to the underlying computer codes than [was] available to an individual teacher” (see here p. 13).

Hence, and “[a]ccording to the unrebutted testimony of [the] plaintiffs’ expert [witness], 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” (see here p. 17). Consequently, the judge concluded that 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” (see here p. 18).

Thereafter, and as per this settlement, HISD agreed to refrain from using VAMs, including the EVAAS, to terminate teachers’ contracts as long as the VAM score is “unverifiable.” More specifically, “HISD agree[d] it will not in the future use value-added scores, including but not limited to EVAAS scores, as a basis to terminate the employment of a term or probationary contract teacher during the term of that teacher’s contract, or to terminate a continuing contract teacher at any time, so long as the value-added score assigned to the teacher remains unverifiable. (see here p. 2; see also here). HISD also agreed to create an “instructional consultation subcommittee” to more inclusively and democratically inform HISD’s teacher appraisal systems and processes, and HISD agreed to pay the Texas AFT $237,000 in its attorney and other legal fees and expenses (State of Texas, 2017, p. 2; see also AFT, 2017).

This is yet another big win for teachers in Houston, and potentially elsewhere, as this ruling is an unprecedented development in VAM litigation. Teachers and others using the EVAAS or another VAM for that matter (e.g., that is also “unverifiable”) do take note, at minimum.

“Virginia SGP” Overruled

You might recall from a post I released approximately 1.5 years ago a story about how a person who self-identifies as “Virginia SGP,” who is also now known as Brian Davison — a parent of two public school students in the affluent Loudoun, Virginia area (hereafter referred to as Virginia SGP), sued the state of Virginia in an attempt to force the release of teachers’ student growth percentile (SGP) data for all teachers across the state.

More specifically, Virginia SGP “pressed for the data’s release because he thinks parents have a right to know how their children’s teachers are performing, information about public employees that exists but has so far been hidden. He also want[ed] to expose what he sa[id was] Virginia’s broken promise to begin [to use] the data to evaluate how effective the state’s teachers are.” The “teacher data should be out there,” especially if taxpayers are paying for it.

In January of 2016, a Richmond, Virginia judge ruled in Virginia SGP’s favor. The following April, a Richmond Circuit Court judge ruled that the Virginia Department of Education was to also release Loudoun County Public Schools’ SGP scores by school and by teacher, including teachers’ identifying information. Accordingly, the judge noted that the department of education and the Loudoun school system failed to “meet the burden of proof to establish an exemption’ under Virginia’s Freedom of Information Act [FOIA]” preventing the release of teachers’ identifiable information (i.e., beyond teachers’ SGP data). The court also ordered VDOE to pay Davison $35,000 to cover his attorney fees and other costs.

As per an article published last week, the Virginia Supreme Court overruled this former ruling, noting that the department of education did not have to provide teachers’ identifiable information along with teachers’ SGP data, after all.

See more details in the actual article here, but ultimately the Virginia Supreme Court concluded that the Richmond Circuit Court “erred in ordering the production of these documents containing teachers’ identifiable information.” The court added that “it was [an] error for the circuit court to order that the School Board share in [Virginia SGP’s] attorney’s fees and costs,” pushing that decision (i.e., the decision regarding how much to pay, if anything at all, in legal fees) back down to the circuit court.

Virginia SGP plans to ask for a rehearing of this ruling. See also his comments on this ruling here.

On Conditional Bias and Correlation: A Guest Post

After I posted about “Observational Systems: Correlations with Value-Added and Bias,” a blog follower, associate professor, and statistician named Laura Ring Kapitula (see also a very influential article she wrote on VAMs here) posted comments on this site that I found of interest, and I thought would also be of interest to blog followers. Hence, I invited her to write a guest post, and she did.

She used R (i.e., a free software environment for statistical computing and graphics) to simulate correlation scatterplots (see Figures below) to illustrate three unique situations: (1) a simulation where there are two indicators (e.g., teacher value-added and observational estimates plotted on the x and y axes) that have a correlation of r = 0.28 (the highest correlation coefficient at issue in the aforementioned post); (2) a simulation exploring the impact of negative bias and a moderate correlation on a group of teachers; and (3) another simulation with two indicators that have a non-linear relationship possibly induced or caused by bias. She designed simulations (2) and (3) to illustrate the plausibility of the situation suggested next (as written into Audrey’s post prior) about potential bias in both value-added and observational estimates:

If there is some bias present in value-added estimates, and some bias present in the observational estimates…perhaps this is why these low correlations are observed. That is, only those teachers teaching classrooms inordinately stacked with students from racial minority, poor, low achieving, etc. groups might yield relatively stronger correlations between their value-added and observational scores given bias, hence, the low correlations observed may be due to bias and bias alone.

Laura continues…

Here, Audrey makes the point that a correlation of r = 0.28 is “weak.” It is, accordingly, useful to see an example of just how “weak” such a correlation is by looking at a scatterplot of data selected from a population where the true correlation is r = 0.28. To make the illustration more meaningful the points are colored based on their quintile scores as per simulated teachers’ value-added divided into the lowest 20%, next 20%, etc.

In this figure you can see by looking at the blue “least squares line” that, “on average,” as a simulated teacher’s value-added estimate increases the average of a teacher’s observational estimate increases. However, there is a lot of variability (or scatter points) around the (scatterplot) line. Given this variability, we can make statements about averages, such as “on average” teachers in the top 20% for VAM scores will likely have on average higher observed observational scores; however, there is not nearly enough precision to make any (and certainly not any good) predictions about the observational score from the VAM score for individual teachers. In fact, the linear relationship between teachers’ VAM and observational scores only accounts for about 8% of the variation in VAM score. Note: we get 8% by squaring the aforementioned r = 0.28 correlation (i.e., an R squared). The other 92% of the variance is due to error and other factors.

What this means in practice is that when correlations are this “weak,” it is reasonable to say statements about averages, for example, that “on average” as one variable increases the mean of the other variable increases, but it would not be prudent or wise to make predictions for individuals based on these data. See, for example, that individuals in the top 20% (quintile 5) of VAM have a very large spread in their scores on the observational score, with 95% of the scores in the top quintile being in between the 7th and 98th percentiles for their observational scores. So, here if we observe a VAM for a specific teacher in the top 20%, and we do not know their observational score, we cannot say much more than their observational score is likely to be in the top 90%. Similarly, if we observe a VAM in the bottom 20%, we cannot say much more than their observational score is likely to be somewhere in the bottom 90%. That’s not saying a lot, in terms of precision, but also in terms of practice.

The second scatterplot I ran to test how bias that only impacts a small group of teachers might theoretically impact an overall correlation, as posited by Audrey. Here I simulated a situation where, again, there are two values present in a population of teachers: a teacher’s value-added and a teacher’s observational score. Then I insert a group of teachers (as Audrey described) who represent 20% of a population and teach a disproportionate number of students who come from relatively lower socioeconomic, high racial minority, etc. backgrounds, and I assume this group is measured with negative bias on both indicators and this group has a moderate correlation between indicators of r = 0.50. The other 80% of the population is assumed to be uncorrelated. Note: for this demonstration I assume that this group includes 20% of teachers from the aforementioned population, these teachers I assume to be measured with negative bias (by one standard deviation on average) on both measures, and, again, I set their correlation at r = 0.50 with the other 80% of teachers at a correlation of zero.

What you can see is that if there is bias in this correlation that impacts only a certain group on the two instrument indicators; hence, it is possible that this bias can result in an observed correlation overall. In other words, a strong correlation noted in just one group of teachers (i.e., teachers scoring the lowest on their value-added and observational indicators in this case) can be relatively stronger than the “weak” correlation observed on average or overall.

Another, possible situation is that there might be a non-linear relationship between these two measures. In the simulation below, I assume that different quantiles on VAM have a different linear relationship with the observational score. For example, in the plot there is not a constant slope, but teachers who are in the first quintile on VAM I assume to have a correlation of r = 0.50 with observational scores, the second quintile I assume to have a correlation of r = 0.20, and the other quintiles I assume to be uncorrelated. This results in an overall correlation in the simulation of r = 0.24, with a very small p-value (i.e. a very small chance that a correlation of this size would be observed by random chance alone if the true correlation was zero).

What this means in practice is that if, in fact, there is a non-linear relationship between teachers’ observational and VAM scores, this can induce a small but statistically significant correlation. As evidenced, teachers in the lowest 20% on the VAM score have differences in the mean observational score depending on the VAM score (a moderate correlation of r = 0.50), but for the other 80%, knowing the VAM score is not informative as there is a very small correlation for the second quintile and no correlation for the upper 60%. So, if quintile cut-off scores are used, teachers can easily be misclassified. In sum, Pearson Correlations (the standard correlation coefficient) measure the overall strength of  linear relationships between X and Y, but if X and Y have a non-linear relationship (like as illustrated in the above), this statistic can be very misleading.

Note also that for all of these simulations very small p-values are observed (e.g., p-values <0.0000001 which, again, mean these correlations are statistically significant or that the probability of observing correlations this large by chance if the true correlation is zero, is nearly 0%). What this illustrates, again, is that correlations (especially correlations this small) are (still) often misleading. While they might be statistically significant, they might mean relatively little in the grand scheme of things (i.e., in terms of practical significance; see also “The Difference Between”Significant’ and ‘Not Significant’ is not Itself Statistically Significant” or posts on Andrew Gelman’s blog for more discussion on these topics if interested).

At the end of the day r = 0.28 is still a “weak” correlation. In addition, it might be “weak,” on average, but much stronger and statistically and practically significant for teachers in the bottom quintiles (e.g., teachers in the bottom 20%, as illustrated in the final figure above) typically teaching the highest needs students. Accordingly, this might be due, at least in part, to bias.

In conclusion, one should always be wary of claims based on “weak” correlations, especially if they are positioned to be stronger than industry standards would classify them (e.g., in the case highlighted in the prior post). Even if a correlation is “statistically significant,” it is possible that the correlation is the result of bias, and that the relationship is so weak that it is not meaningful in practice, especially when the goal is to make high-stakes decisions about individual teachers. Accordingly, when you see correlations this small, keep these scatterplots in mind or generate some of your own (see, for example, here to dive deeper into what these correlations might mean and how significant these correlations might really be).

*Please contact Dr. Kapitula directly at kapitull@gvsu.edu if you want more information or to access the R code she used for the above.

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]).

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: 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.”

New Texas Lawsuit: VAM-Based Estimates as Indicators of Teachers’ “Observable” Behaviors

Last week I spent a few days in Austin, one day during which I provided expert testimony for a new state-level lawsuit that has the potential to impact teachers throughout Texas. The lawsuit — Texas State Teachers Association (TSTA) v. Texas Education Agency (TEA), Mike Morath in his Official Capacity as Commissioner of Education for the State of Texas.

The key issue is that, as per the state’s Texas Education Code (Sec. § 21.351, see here) regarding teachers’ “Recommended Appraisal Process and Performance Criteria,” The Commissioner of Education must adopt “a recommended teacher appraisal process and criteria on which to appraise the performance of teachers. The criteria must be based on observable, job-related behavior, including: (1) teachers’ implementation of discipline management procedures; and (2) the performance of teachers’ students.” As for the latter, the State/TEA/Commissioner defined, as per its Texas Administrative Code (T.A.C., Chapter 15, Sub-Chapter AA, §150.1001, see here), that teacher-level value-added measures should be treated as one of the four measures of “(2) the performance of teachers’ students;” that is, one of the four measures recognized by the State/TEA/Commissioner as an “observable” indicator of a teacher’s “job-related” performance.

While currently no district throughout the State of Texas is required to use a value-added component to assess and evaluate its teachers, as noted, the value-added component is listed as one of four measures from which districts must choose at least one. All options listed in the category of “observable” indicators include: (A) student learning objectives (SLOs); (B) student portfolios; (C) pre- and post-test results on district-level assessments; and (D) value-added data based on student state assessment results.

Related, the state has not recommended or required that any district, if the value-added option is selected, to choose any particular value-added model (VAM) or calculation approach. Nor has it recommended or required that any district adopt any consequences as attached to these output; however, things like teacher contract renewal and sharing teachers’ prior appraisals with other districts in which teachers might be applying for new jobs is not discouraged. Again, though, the main issue here (and the key points to which I testified) was that the value-added component is listed as an “observable” and “job-related” teacher effectiveness indicator as per the state’s administrative code.

Accordingly, my (5 hour) testimony was primarily (albeit among many other things including the “job-related” part) about how teacher-level value-added data do not yield anything that is observable in terms of teachers’ effects. Likewise, officially referring to these data in this way is entirely false, in fact, in that:

  • “We” cannot directly observe a teacher “adding” (or detracting) value (e.g., with our own eyes, like supervisors can when they conduct observations of teachers in practice);
  • Using students’ test scores to measure student growth upwards (or downwards) and over time, as is very common practice using the (very often instructionally insensitive) state-level tests required by No Child Left Behind (NCLB), and doing this once per year in mathematics and reading/language arts (that includes prior and other current teachers’ effects, summer learning gains and decay, etc.), is not valid practice. That is, doing this has not been validated by the scholarly/testing community; and
  • Worse and less valid is to thereafter aggregate this student-level growth to the teacher level and then call whatever “growth” (or the lack thereof) is because of something the teacher (and really only the teacher did), as directly “observable.” These data are far from assessing a teacher’s causal or “observable” impacts on his/her students’ learning and achievement over time. See, for example, the prior statement released about value-added data use in this regard by the American Statistical Association (ASA) here. In this statement it is written that: “Research on VAMs has been fairly consistent that aspects of educational effectiveness that are measurable and within teacher control represent a small part of the total variation [emphasis added to note that this is variation explained which = correlational versus causal research] in student test scores or growth; most estimates in the literature attribute between 1% and 14% of the total variability [emphasis added] to teachers. This is not saying that teachers have little effect on students, but that variation among teachers [emphasis added] accounts for a small part of the variation [emphasis added] in [said test] scores. The majority of the variation in [said] test scores is [inversely, 86%-99% related] to factors outside of the teacher’s control such as student and family background, poverty, curriculum, and unmeasured influences.”

If any of you have anything to add to this, please do so in the comments section of this post. Otherwise, I will keep you posted on how this goes. My current understanding is that this one will be headed to court.

New Article Published on Using Value-Added Data to Evaluate Teacher Education Programs

A former colleague, a current PhD student, and I just had an article released about using value-added data to (or rather not to) evaluate teacher education/preparation, higher education programs. The article is titled “An Elusive Policy Imperative: Data and Methodological Challenges When Using Growth in Student Achievement to Evaluate Teacher Education Programs’ ‘Value-Added,” and the abstract of the article is included below.

If there is anyone out there who might be interested in this topic, please note that the journal in which this piece was published (online first and to be published in its paper version later) – Teaching Education – has made the article free for its first 50 visitors. Hence, I thought I’d share this with you all first.

If you’re interested, do access the full piece here.

Happy reading…and here’s the abstract:

In this study researchers examined the effectiveness of one of the largest teacher education programs located within the largest research-intensive universities within the US. They did this using a value-added model as per current federal educational policy imperatives to assess the measurable effects of teacher education programs on their teacher graduates’ students’ learning and achievement as compared to other teacher education programs. Correlational and group comparisons revealed little to no relationship between value-added scores and teacher education program regardless of subject area or position on the value-added scale. These findings are discussed within the context of several very important data and methodological challenges researchers also made transparent, as also likely common across many efforts to evaluate teacher education programs using value-added approaches. Such transparency and clarity might assist in the creation of more informed value-added practices (and more informed educational policies) surrounding teacher education accountability.