States’ Teacher Evaluation Systems Moving in the “Right” Direction

Last week, a technical report that one of my current and one of my former doctoral students helped me to research and write, was published by the University of Colorado Boulder’s National Education Policy Center (NEPC). While you can navigate to and read the press release here, as well as download and read the full report here, I thought I would summarize the report’s most interesting facts in this post, for the readers/followers of this blog who are likely more interested in the findings pertaining to states’ revised teacher evaluation systems, post the federal passage of the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA).

In short, we collected and analyzed for purposes of this study the 51 (i.e., 50 states plus Washington DC) revised teacher evaluation plans submitted to the federal government post ESSA (i.e. spring/summer of 2017) We found, again as specific only to states’ teacher evaluation systems, three key findings:

— First, the role of growth or value-added models (VAMs) for teacher evaluation purposes is declining. That is, the number of states using statewide growth models or VAMs has decreased from 42% to 30% since 2014. This is certainly a step in the “right,” defined as research-informed, direction. See also Figure 1 below (Close, Amrein-Beardsley, & Collins, 2018, p. 13).

— Second, because ESSA loosened federal control of teacher evaluation, many states no longer have a one-size-fits-all teacher evaluation system. This is allowing local districts to make more choices about models, implementation, execution, and the like, in the contexts of the schools and communities in which schools exist.

— Third, the rhetoric surrounding teacher evaluation has changed: language about holding teachers accountable for their value-added effects, or lack thereof, is much less evident in post-ESSA plans. Rather, new plans make note of providing data to teachers as a means of supporting professional development and improvement, essentially shifting the purpose of the evaluation system away from summative and toward formative use.

We also set forth recommendations for states in this report, as based on the evidence noted above (and presented in much more detail in the full report). The recommendations that also directly pertain to states’ (and districts’) teacher evaluation systems are that states/districts:

  1. Take advantage of decreased federal control by formulating revised assessment policies informed by the viewpoints of as many stakeholders as feasible. Such informed revision can help remedy earlier weaknesses, promote effective implementation, stress correct interpretation, and yield formative information.
  2. Ensure that teacher evaluation systems rely on a balanced system of multiple measures, without disproportionate weight assigned to any one measure as allegedly “superior” than any other. If measures contradict one another, however, output from all measures should be interpreted judiciously.
  3. Emphasize data useful as formative feedback in state systems, so that specific weaknesses in student learning can be identified, targeted and used to inform teachers’ professional development.
  4. Mandate ongoing research and evaluation of state assessment systems and ensure that adequate resources are provided to support [ongoing] evaluation [efforts].
  5. Set goals for reducing proficiency gaps and outline procedures for developing strategies to effectively reduce gaps once they have been identified.

We hope this information helps, especially the states and districts still looking to other states to see what is trending. While we note in the title of this blog post as well as the title of the full report that all of this represents “some steps in the right direction,” there is still much work to be done. This is especially true in states, for example like New Mexico (see my most recent post about the ongoing lawsuit in this state here) and other states which have yet to give up on the false promises and limited research of such educational policies established almost one decade ago (e.g., Race to the Top; Duncan, 2009).

Citations:

Close, K., Amrein-Beardsley, A., & Collins, C. (2018). State-level assessments and teacher evaluation systems after the passage of the Every Student Succeeds Act: Some steps in the right direction. Boulder, CO: Nation Education Policy Center (NEPC). Retrieved from http://nepc.colorado.edu/publication/state-assessment

Duncan, A. (2009, July 4). The race to the top begins: Remarks by Secretary Arne Duncan. Retrieved from http://www.ed.gov/news/speeches/2009/07/07242009.html

New Mexico Teacher Evaluation Lawsuit Updates

In December of 2015 in New Mexico, via a preliminary injunction set forth by state District Judge David K. Thomson, all consequences attached to teacher-level value-added model (VAM) scores (e.g., flagging the files of teachers with low VAM scores) were suspended throughout the state until the state (and/or others external to the state) could prove to the state court that the system was reliable, valid, fair, uniform, and the like. The trial during which this evidence is to be presented by the state is currently set for this October. See more information about this ruling here.

As the expert witness for the plaintiffs in this case, I was deposed a few weeks ago here in Phoenix, given my analyses of the state’s data (supported by one of my PhD students – Tray Geiger). In short, we found and I testified during the deposition that:

  • In terms of uniformity and fairness, there seem to be 70% or so of New Mexico teachers who are ineligible to be assessed using VAMs, and this proportion held constant across the years of data analyzed. This is even more important to note knowing that when VAM-based data are to be used to make consequential decisions about teachers, issues with fairness and uniformity become even more important given accountability-eligible teachers are also those who are relatively more likely to realize the negative or reap the positive consequences attached to VAM-based estimates.
  • In terms of reliability (or the consistency of teachers’ VAM-based scores over time), approximately 40% of teachers differed by one quintile (quintiles are derived when a sample or population is divided into fifths) and approximately 28% of teachers differed, from year-to-year, by two or more quintiles in terms of their VAM-derived effectiveness ratings. These results make sense when New Mexico’s results are situated within the current literature, whereas teachers classified as “effective” one year can have a 25%-59% chance of being classified as “ineffective” the next, or vice versa, with other permutations also possible.
  • In terms of validity (i.e., concurrent related evidence of validity), and importantly as also situated within the current literature, the correlations between New Mexico teachers’ VAM-based and observational scores ranged from r = 0.153 to r = 0.210. Not only are these correlations very weak[1], they are also very weak as appropriately situated within the literature, via which it is evidenced that correlations between multiple VAMs and observational scores typically range from 0.30 ≤ r ≤ 0.50.
  • In terms of bias, New Mexico’s Caucasian teachers had significantly higher observation scores than non-Caucasian teachers implying, also as per the current research, that Caucasian teachers may be (falsely) perceived as being better teachers than non-Caucasians teachers given bias within these instruments and/or bias of the scorers observing and scoring teachers using these instruments in practice. See prior posts about observational-based bias here, here and here.
  • Also of note in terms of bias was that: (1) teachers with fewer years of experience yielded VAM scores that were significantly lower than teachers with more years of experience, with similar patterns noted across teachers’ observation scores, which could all mean, as also in line with common sense as well as the research, that teachers with more experience are typically better teachers; (2) teachers who taught English language learners (ELLs) or special education students had lower VAM scores across the board than those who did not teach such students; (3) teachers who taught gifted students had significantly higher VAM scores than non-gifted teachers which runs counter to the current research evidencing that teachers’ gifted students oft-thwart or prevent them from demonstrating growth given ceiling effects; (4) teachers in schools with lower relative proportions of ELLs, special education students, students eligible for free-or-reduced lunches, and students from racial minority backgrounds, as well as higher relative proportions of gifted students, consistently had significantly higher VAM scores. These results suggest that teachers in these schools are as a group better, and/or that VAM-based estimates might be biased against teachers not teaching in these schools, preventing them from demonstrating comparable growth.

To read more about the data and methods used, as well as other findings, please see my affidavit submitted to the court attached here: Affidavit Feb2018.

Although, also in terms of a recent update, I should also note that a few weeks ago, as per an article in the AlbuquerqueJournal, New Mexico’s teacher evaluation systems is now likely to be overhauled, or simply “expired” as early as 2019. In short, “all three Democrats running for governor and the lone Republican candidate…have expressed misgivings about using students’ standardized test scores to evaluate the effectiveness of [New Mexico’s] teachers, a key component of the current system [at issue in this lawsuit and] imposed by the administration of outgoing Gov. Susana Martinez.” All four candidates described the current system “as fundamentally flawed and said they would move quickly to overhaul it.”

While I/we will proceed our efforts pertaining to this lawsuit until further notice, this is also important to note at this time in that it seems that New Mexico’s policymakers of new are going to be much wiser than those of late, at least in these regards.

[1] Interpreting r: 0.8 ≤ r ≤ 1.0 = a very strong correlation; 0.6 ≤ r ≤ 0.8 = a strong correlation; 0.4 ≤ r ≤ 0.6 = a moderate correlation; 0.2 ≤ r ≤ 0.4 = a weak correlation; and 0.0 ≤ r ≤ 0.2 = a very weak correlation, if any at all.

 

New Mexico’s Motion for Summary Judgment, Following Houston’s Precedent-Setting Ruling

Recall that in New Mexico, just over two years ago, all consequences attached to teacher-level value-added model (VAM) scores (e.g., flagging the files of teachers with low VAM scores) were suspended throughout the state until the state (and/or others external to the state) could prove to the state court that the system was reliable, valid, fair, uniform, and the like. The trial during which this evidence was to be presented by the state was repeatedly postponed since, yet with teacher-level consequences prohibited all the while. See more information about this ruling here.

Recall as well that in Houston, just this past May, that a district judge ruled that Houston Independent School District (HISD) teachers’ who had VAM scores (as based on the Education Value-Added Assessment System (EVAAS)) had 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). More specifically, in what turned out to be a huge and unprecedented victory, the judge ruled that because HISD teachers “ha[d] no meaningful way to ensure correct calculation of their EVAAS scores,” they were, as a result, “unfairly subject to mistaken deprivation of constitutionally protected property interests in their jobs.” This ruling ultimately led the district to end the use of the EVAAS for teacher termination throughout Houston. See more information about this ruling here.

Just this past week, New Mexico charged that the Houston ruling regarding Houston teachers’ Fourteenth Amendment due process protections also applies to teachers throughout the state of New Mexico.

As per an article titled “Motion For Summary Judgment Filed In New Mexico Teacher Evaluation Lawsuit,” the American Federation of Teachers and Albuquerque Teachers Federation filed a “motion for summary judgment in the litigation in our continuing effort to make teacher evaluations beneficial and accurate in New Mexico.” They, too, are “seeking a determination that the [state’s] failure to provide teachers with adequate information about the calculation of their VAM scores violated their procedural due process rights.”

“The evidence demonstrates that neither school administrators nor educators have been provided with sufficient information to replicate the [New Mexico] VAM score calculations used as a basis for teacher evaluations. The VAM algorithm is complex, and the general overview provided in the NMTeach Technical Guide is not enough to pass constitutional muster. During previous hearings, educators testified they do not receive an explanation at the time they receive their annual evaluation, and teachers have been subjected to performance growth plans based on low VAM scores, without being given any guidance or explanation as to how to raise that score on future evaluations. Thus, not only do educators not understand the algorithm used to derive the VAM score that is now part of the basis for their overall evaluation rating, but school administrators within the districts do not have sufficient information on how the score is derived in order to replicate it or to provide professional development, whether as part of a disciplinary scenario or otherwise, to assist teachers in raising their VAM score.”

For more information about this update, please click here.

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.

One Florida District Kisses VAMs Goodbye

I recently wrote about how, in Louisiana, the state is reverting back to its value-added model (VAM)-based teacher accountability system after its four year hiatus (see here). The post titled “Much of the Same in Louisiana” likely did not come as a surprise to teachers there in that the state (like most other states in the sunbelt, excluding California) have a common and also perpetual infatuation with such systems, whether they be based on student-level or teacher-level accountability.

Well, at least one school district in Florida is kissing the state’s six-year infatuation with its VAM-based teacher accountability system goodbye. I could have invoked a much more colorful metaphor here, but let’s just go with something along the lines of a sophomoric love affair.

According to a recent article in the Tampa Bay Times (see here), “[u]sing new authority from the [state] Legislature, the Citrus County School Board became the first in the state to stop using VAM, citing its unfairness and opaqueness…[with this]…decision…expected to prompt other boards to action.”

That’s all the article has to offer on the topic, but let’s all hope others, in Florida and beyond, do follow.

The “Widget Effect” Report Revisited

You might recall that in 2009, The New Teacher Project published a highly influential “Widget Effect” report in which researchers (see citation below) evidenced that 99% of teachers (whose teacher evaluation reports they examined across a sample of school districts spread across a handful of states) received evaluation ratings of “satisfactory” or higher. Inversely, only 1% of the teachers whose reports researchers examined received ratings of “unsatisfactory,” even though teachers’ supervisors could identify more teachers whom they deemed ineffective when asked otherwise.

Accordingly, this report was widely publicized given the assumed improbability that only 1% of America’s public school teachers were, in fact, ineffectual, and given the fact that such ineffective teachers apparently existed but were not being identified using standard teacher evaluation/observational systems in use at the time.

Hence, this report was used as evidence that America’s teacher evaluation systems were unacceptable and in need of reform, primarily given the subjectivities and flaws apparent and arguably inherent across the observational components of these systems. This reform was also needed to help reform America’s public schools, writ large, so the logic went and (often) continues to go. While binary constructions of complex data such as these are often used to ground simplistic ideas and push definitive policies, ideas, and agendas, this tactic certainly worked here, as this report (among a few others) was used to inform the federal and state policies pushing teacher evaluation system reform as a result (e.g., Race to the Top (RTTT)).

Likewise, this report continues to be used whenever a state’s or district’s new-and-improved teacher evaluation systems (still) evidence “too many” (as typically arbitrarily defined) teachers as effective or higher (see, for example, an Education Week article about this here). Although, whether in fact the systems have actually been reformed is also of debate in that states are still using many of the same observational systems they were using prior (i.e., not the “binary checklists” exaggerated in the original as well as this report, albeit true in the case of the district of focus in this study). The real “reforms,” here, pertained to the extent to which value-added model (VAM) or other growth output were combined with these observational measures, and the extent to which districts adopted state-level observational models as per the centralized educational policies put into place at the same time.

Nonetheless, now eight years later, Matthew A. Kraft – an Assistant Professor of Education & Economics at Brown University and Allison F. Gilmour – an Assistant Professor at Temple University (and former doctoral student at Vanderbilt University), revisited the original report. Just published in the esteemed, peer-reviewed journal Educational Researcher (see an earlier version of the published study here), Kraft and Gilmour compiled “teacher performance ratings across 24 [of the 38, including 14 RTTT] states that [by 2014-2015] adopted major reforms to their teacher evaluation systems” as a result of such policy initiatives. They found that “the percentage of teachers rated Unsatisfactory remains less than 1%,” except for in two states (i.e., Maryland and New Mexico), with Unsatisfactory (or similar) ratings varying “widely across states with 0.7% to 28.7%” as the low and high, respectively (see also the study Abstract).

Related, Kraft and Gilmour found that “some new teacher evaluation systems do differentiate among teachers, but most only do so at the top of the ratings spectrum” (p. 10). More specifically, observers in states in which teacher evaluation ratings include five versus four rating categories differentiate teachers more, but still do so along the top three ratings, which still does not solve the negative skew at issue (i.e., “too many” teachers still scoring “too well”). They also found that when these observational systems were used for formative (i.e., informative, improvement) purposes, teachers’ ratings were lower than when they were used for summative (i.e., final summary) purposes.

Clearly, the assumptions of all involved in this area of policy research come into play, here, akin to how they did in The Bell Curve and The Bell Curve Debate. During this (still ongoing) debate, many fervently debated whether socioeconomic and educational outcomes (e.g., IQ) should be normally distributed. What this means in this case, for example, is that for every teacher who is rated highly effective there should be a teacher rated as highly ineffective, more or less, to yield a symmetrical distribution of teacher observational scores across the spectrum.

In fact, one observational system of which I am aware (i.e., the TAP System for Teacher and Student Advancement) is marketing its proprietary system, using as a primary selling point figures illustrating (with text explaining) how clients who use their system will improve their prior “Widget Effect” results (i.e., yielding such normal curves; see Figure below, as per Jerald & Van Hook, 2011, p. 1).

Evidence also suggests that these scores are also (sometimes) being artificially deflated to assist in these attempts (see, for example, a recent publication of mine released a few days ago here in the (also) esteemed, peer-reviewed Teachers College Record about how this is also occurring in response to the “Widget Effect” report and the educational policies that follows).

While Kraft and Gilmour assert that “systems that place greater weight on normative measures such as value-added scores rather than…[just]…observations have fewer teachers rated proficient” (p. 19; see also Steinberg & Kraft, forthcoming; a related article about how this has occurred in New Mexico here; and New Mexico’s 2014-2016 data below and here, as also illustrative of the desired normal curve distributions discussed above), I highly doubt this purely reflects New Mexico’s “commitment to putting students first.”

I also highly doubt that, as per New Mexico’s acting Secretary of Education, this was “not [emphasis added] designed with quote unquote end results in mind.” That is, “the New Mexico Public Education Department did not set out to place any specific number or percentage of teachers into a given category.” If true, it’s pretty miraculous how this simply worked out as illustrated… This is also at issue in the lawsuit in which I am involved in New Mexico, in which the American Federation of Teachers won an injunction in 2015 that still stands today (see more information about this lawsuit here). Indeed, as per Kraft, all of this “might [and possibly should] undercut the potential for this differentiation [if ultimately proven artificial, for example, as based on statistical or other pragmatic deflation tactics] to be seen as accurate and valid” (as quoted here).

Notwithstanding, Kraft and Gilmour, also as part (and actually the primary part) of this study, “present original survey data from an urban district illustrating that evaluators perceive more than three times as many teachers in their schools to be below Proficient than they rate as such.” Accordingly, even though their data for this part of this study come from one district, their findings are similar to others evidenced in the “Widget Effect” report; hence, there are still likely educational measurement (and validity) issues on both ends (i.e., with using such observational rubrics as part of America’s reformed teacher evaluation systems and using survey methods to put into check these systems, overall). In other words, just because the survey data did not match the observational data does not mean either is wrong, or right, but there are still likely educational measurement issues.

Also of issue in this regard, in terms of the 1% issue, is (a) the time and effort it takes supervisors to assist/desist after rating teachers low is sometimes not worth assigning low ratings; (b) how supervisors often give higher ratings to those with perceived potential, also in support of their future growth, even if current evidence suggests a lower rating is warranted; (c) how having “difficult conversations” can sometimes prevent supervisors from assigning the scores they believe teachers may deserve, especially if things like job security are on the line; (d) supervisors’ challenges with removing teachers, including “long, laborious, legal, draining process[es];” and (e) supervisors’ challenges with replacing teachers, if terminated, given current teacher shortages and the time and effort, again, it often takes to hire (ideally more qualified) replacements.

References:

Jerald, C. D., & Van Hook, K. (2011). More than measurement: The TAP system’s lessons learned for designing better teacher evaluation systems. Santa Monica, CA: National Institute for Excellence in Teaching (NIET). Retrieved from http://files.eric.ed.gov/fulltext/ED533382.pdf

Kraft, M. A, & Gilmour, A. F. (2017). Revisiting the Widget Effect: Teacher evaluation reforms and the distribution of teacher effectiveness. Educational Researcher, 46(5) 234-249. doi:10.3102/0013189X17718797

Steinberg, M. P., & Kraft, M. A. (forthcoming). The sensitivity of teacher performance ratings to the design of teacher evaluation systems. Educational Researcher.

Weisberg, D., Sexton, S., Mulhern, J., & Keeling, D. (2009). “The Widget Effect.” Education Digest, 75(2), 31–35.

Breaking News: Another Big Victory in Court in Texas

Earlier today I released a post regarding “A Big Victory in Court in Houston,” in which I wrote about how, yesterday, US Magistrate Judge Smith ruled — in Houston Federation of Teachers et al. v. Houston Independent School District — that Houston teacher plaintiffs’ have legitimate claims regarding how their Education Value-Added Assessment System (EVAAS) value-added scores, 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). Hence, on this charge, this case is officially going to trial.

Well, also yesterday, “we” won another court case on which I also served as an expert witness (I served as an expert witness on behalf of the plaintiffs alongside Jesse Rothstein in the court case noted above). As per this case — Texas State Teachers Association v. Texas Education Agency, Mike Morath in his Official Capacity as Commissioner of Education for the State of Texas (although there were three similar cases also filed – see all four referenced below) — The Honorable Lora J. Livingston ruled that the Defendants are to make revisions to 19 Tex. Admin. Code § 150.1001 that most notably include the removal of (A) student learning objectives [SLOs], (B) student portfolios, (C) pre and post test results on district level assessments; or (D) value added data based on student state assessment results. In addition, “The rules do not restrict additional factors a school district may consider…,” and “Under the local appraisal system, there [will be] no required weighting for each measure…,” although districts can chose to weight whatever measures they might choose. “Districts can also adopt an appraisal system that does not provide a single, overall summative rating.” That is, increased local control.

If the Texas Education Agency (TEA) does not adopt the regulations put forth by the court by next October, this case will continue. This does not look likely, however, in that as per a news article released today, here, Texas “Commissioner of Education Mike Morath…agreed to revise the [states’] rules in exchange for the four [below] teacher groups’ suspending their legal challenges.” As noted prior, the terms of this settlement call for the removal of the above-mentioned, state-required, four growth measures when evaluating teachers.

This was also highlighted in a news article, released yesterday, here, with this one more generally about how teachers throughout Texas will no longer be evaluated using their students’ test scores, again, as required by the state.

At the crux of this case, as also highlighted in this particular piece, and to which I testified (quite extensively), was that the value-added measures formerly required/suggested by the state did not constitute teachers’ “observable,” job-related behaviors. See also a prior post about this case here.

*****

Cases Contributing to this Ruling:

1. Texas State Teachers Association v. Texas Education Agency, Mike Morath, in his Official Capacity as Commissioner of Education for the State of Texas; in the 345th Judicial District Court, Travis County, Texas

2. Texas Classroom Teachers Association v. Mike Morath, Texas Commissioner of Education; in the 419th Judicial District Court, Travis County, Texas

3. Texas American Federation of Teachers v. Mike Morath, Commissioner of Education, in his official capacity, and Texas Education Agency; in the 201st Judicial District Court, Travis County, Texas

4. Association of Texas Professional Educators v. Mike Morath, the Commissioner of Education and the Texas Education Agency; in the 200th District Court of Travis County, Texas.

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.”

Nevada (Potentially) Dropping Students’ Test Scores from Its Teacher Evaluation System

This week in Nevada “Lawmakers Mull[ed] Dropping Student Test Scores from Teacher Evaluations,” as per a recent article in The Nevada Independent (see here). This would be quite a move from 2011 when the state (as backed by state Republicans, not backed by federal Race to the Top funds, and as inspired by Michelle Rhee) passed into policy a requirement that 50% of all Nevada teachers’ evaluations were to rely on said data. The current percentage rests at 20%, but it is to double next year to 40%.

Nevada is one of a still uncertain number of states looking to retract the weight and purported “value-added” of such measures. Note also that last week Connecticut dropped some of its test-based components of its teacher evaluation system (see here). All of this is occurring, of course, post the federal passage of the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), within which it is written that states must no longer set up teacher-evaluation systems based in significant part on their students’ test scores.

Accordingly, 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.” The Democratic Assembly Speaker, for example, said that “he’s always been troubled that teachers are rated on standardized test scores,” more specifically noting: “I don’t think any single teacher that I’ve talked to would shirk away from being held accountable…[b]ut if they’re going to be held accountable, they want to be held accountable for things that … reflect their actual work.” I’ve never met a teacher would disagree with this statement.

Anyhow, this past Monday the state’s Assembly Education Committee heard public testimony on these matters and three bills “that would alter the criteria for how teachers’ effectiveness is measured.” These three bills are as follows:

  • AB212 would prohibit the use of student test scores in evaluating teachers, while
  • AB320 would eliminate statewide [standardized] test results as a measure but allow local assessments to account for 20 percent of the total evaluation.
  • AB312 would ensure that teachers in overcrowded classrooms not be penalized for certain evaluation metrics deemed out of their control given the student-to-teacher ratio.

Many presented testimony in support of these bills over an extended period of time on Tuesday. I was also invited to speak, during which I “cautioned lawmakers against being ‘mesmerized’ by the promised objectivity of standardized tests. They have their own flaws, [I] argued, estimating that 90-95 percent of researchers who are looking at the effects of high-stakes testing agree that they’re not moving the dial [really whatsoever] on teacher performance.”

Lawmakers have until the end of tomorrow (i.e., Friday) to pass these bills outside of the committee. Otherwise, they will die.

Of course, I will keep you posted, but things are currently looking “very promising,” especially for AB320.

Rest in Peace, EVAAS Developer William L. Sanders

Over the last 3.5 years since I developed this blog, I have written many posts about one particular value-added model (VAM) – the Education Value-Added Assessment System (EVAAS), formerly known as the Tennessee Value-Added Assessment System (TVAAS), now known by some states as the TxVAAS in Texas, the PVAAS in Pennsylvania, and also known as the generically-named EVAAS in states like Ohio, North Carolina, and South Carolina (and many districts throughout the nation). It is this model on which I have conducted most of my research (see, for example, the first piece I published about this model here, in which most of the claims I made still stand, although EVAAS modelers disagreed here). And it is this model that is at the source of the majority of the teacher evaluation lawsuits in which I have been or still am currently engaged (see, for example, details about the Houston lawsuit here, the former Tennessee lawsuit here, and the new Texas lawsuit here, although the model is more peripheral in this particular case).

Anyhow, the original EVAAS model (i.e, the TVAAS) was originally developed by a man named William L. Sanders who ultimately sold it to SAS Institute Inc. that now holds all rights to the proprietary model. See, for example, here. See also examples of prior posts about Sanders here, here, here, here, here, and here. See also examples of prior posts about the EVAAS here, here, here, here, here, and here.

It is William L. Sanders who just passed away and we sincerely hope may rest in peace.

Sanders had a bachelors degree in animal science and a doctorate in statistics and quantitative genetics. As an adjunct professor and agricultural statistician in the college of business at the University of Knoxville, Tennessee, he developed in the late 1980s his TVAAS.

Sanders thought that educators struggling with student achievement in the state should “simply” use more advanced statistics, similar to those used when modeling genetic and reproductive trends among cattle, to measure growth, hold teachers accountable for that growth, and solve the educational measurement woes facing the state of Tennessee at the time. It was to be as simple as that…. I should also mention that given this history, not surprisingly, Tennessee was one of the first states to receive Race to the Top funds to the tune of $502 million to further advance this model; hence, this has also contributed to this model’s popularity across the nation.

Nonetheless, Sanders passed away this past Thursday, March 16, 2017, from natural causes in Columbia, Tennessee. As per his obituary here,

  • He was most well-known for developing “a method used to measure a district, school, and teacher’s effect on student performance by tracking the year-to-year progress of students against themselves over their school career with various teachers’ classes.”
  • He “stood for a hopeful view that teacher effectiveness dwarfs all other factors as a predictor of student academic growth…[challenging]…decades of assumptions that student family life, income, or ethnicity has more effect on student learning.”
  • He believed, in the simplest of terms, “that educational influence matters and teachers matter most.”

Of course, we have much research evidence to counter these claims, but for now we will just leave all of this at that. Again, may he rest in peace.