Tennessee’s Trout/Taylor Value-Added Lawsuit Dismissed

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As you may recall, one of 15 important lawsuits pertaining to teacher value-added estimates across the nation (Florida n=2, Louisiana n=1, Nevada n=1, New Mexico n=4, New York n=3, Tennessee n=3, and Texas n=1 – see more information here) was situated in Knox County, Tennessee.

Filed in February of 2015, with legal support provided by the Tennessee Education Association (TEA), Knox County teacher Lisa Trout and Mark Taylor charged that they were denied monetary bonuses after their Tennessee Value-Added Assessment System (TVAAS — the original Education Value-Added Assessment System (EVAAS)) teacher-level value-added scores were miscalculated. This lawsuit was also to contest the reasonableness, rationality, and arbitrariness of the TVAAS system, as per its intended and actual uses in this case, but also in Tennessee writ large. On this case, Jesse Rothstein (University of California – Berkeley) and I were serving as the Plaintiffs’ expert witnesses.

Unfortunately, however, last week (February 17, 2016) the Plaintiffs’ team received a Court order written by U.S. District Judge Harry S. Mattice Jr. dismissing their claims. While the Court had substantial questions about the reliability and validity of the TVAAS, the Court determined that the State satisfied the very low threshold of the “rational basis test,” at legal issue. I should note here, however, that all of the evidence that the lawyers for the Plaintiffs collected via their “extensive discovery,” including the affidavits both Jesse and I submitted on Plaintiffs’ behalves, were unfortunately not considered in Judge Mattice’s motion to dismiss. This, perhaps, makes sense given some of the assertions made by the Court, forthcoming.

Ultimately, the Court found that the TVAAS-based, teacher-level value-added policy at issue was “rationally related to a legitimate government interest.” As per the Court order itself, Judge Mattice wrote that “While the court expresses no opinion as to whether the Tennessee Legislature has enacted sound public policy, it finds that the use of TVAAS as a means to measure teacher efficacy survives minimal constitutional scrutiny. If this policy proves to be unworkable in practice, plaintiffs are not to be vindicated by judicial intervention but rather by democratic process.”

Otherwise, as per an article in the Knoxville News Sentinel, Judge Mattice was “not unsympathetic to the teachers’ claims,” for example, given the TVAAS measures “student growth — not teacher performance — using an algorithm that is not fail proof.” He inversely noted, however, in the Court order that the “TVAAS algorithms have been validated for their accuracy in measuring a teacher’s effect on student growth,” even if minimal. He also wrote that the test scores used in the TVAAS (and other models) “need not be validated for measuring teacher effectiveness merely because they are used as an input in a validated statistical model that measures teacher effectiveness.” This is, unfortunately, untrue. Nonetheless, he continued to write that even though the rational basis test “might be a blunt tool, a rational policymaker could conclude that TVAAS is ‘capable of measuring some marginal impact that teachers can have on their own students…[and t]his is all the Constitution requires.”

In the end, Judge Mattice concluded in the Court order that, overall, “It bears repeating that Plaintiff’s concerns about the statistical imprecision of TVAAS are not unfounded. In addressing Plaintiffs’ constitutional claims, however, the Court’s role is extremely limited. The judiciary is not empowered to second-guess the wisdom of the Tennessee legislature’s approach to solving the problems facing public education, but rather must determine whether the policy at issue is rationally related to a legitimate government interest.”

It is too early to know whether the prosecution team will appeal, although Judge Mattice dismissed the federal constitutional claims within the lawsuit “with prejudice.” As per an article in the Knoxville News Sentinel, this means that “it cannot be resurrected with new facts or legal claims or in another court. His decision can be appealed, though, to the 6th Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals.”

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