What’s Happening in Tennessee?

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VAMs have been used in Tennessee for more than 20 years, coming about largely “by accident.” In the late 1980s, an agricultural statistician/adjunct professor at the University of Knoxville – William Sanders – thought that educators struggling with student achievement in the state could “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 at the time.

Sanders developed the Tennessee Value-Added Assessment System (TVAAS), which is now known as the Education Value-Added Assessment System (EVAAS®) and operated by SAS® Institute Inc. Nowadays, the SAS® EVAAS® is widely considered, with over 20 years of development, the largest, one of the best, one of the most widely adopted and used, and likely the most controversial VAM in the country. It is controversial in that it is a proprietary model (i.e., it is costly and used/marketed under exclusive legal rights of the inventors/operators), and it is often akin to a “black box” model (i.e., it is protected by a good deal of secrecy and mystery, largely given its non-transparency). Nonetheless, on the SAS® EVAAS® website developers continue to make grandiose marketing claims without much caution or really any research evidence in support (e.g., using the SAS® EVAAS® will provide “a clear path to achieve the US goal to lead the world in college completion by the year 2020”). Riding on such claims, they continue to sell their model to states (e.g., Tennessee, North Carolina, Ohio, Pennsylvania) and districts (e.g., the Houston Independent School District) regardless, but at taxpayers’ costs.

In fact, thanks to similar marketing efforts and promotions, not to mention lobbying efforts coming out of Tennessee, VAMs have now been forced upon America’s public schools by the Obama administration’s Race to the Top program. 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 the SAS® EVAAS® model, still referred to as the TVAAS, however, in the state of Tennessee.

Well, it seems things are not going so well in Tennessee. As highlighted in this recent article, it seems that boards of education across the state are increasingly opposing the TVAAS for high-stakes use (e.g., using TVAAS estimates when issuing, renewing or denying teacher licenses).

Some of the key issues? The TVAAS is too complex to understand; teachers’ scores are highly and unacceptably inconsistent from one year to the next, and, hence, invalid; teachers are being held accountable for things that are out of their control (e.g., what happens outside of school); there are major concerns about the extent to which teachers actually cause changes in TVAAS estimates over time; the state does not have any improvement plans in place for teachers with subpar TVAAS estimates; these issues are being further complicated by changing standards (e.g., the adoption of the Common Core) at the same time; and the like.

Interestingly enough, researchers have been raising precisely these same concerns since the early 1990s when the TVAAS was first implemented in Tennessee. Had policymakers listened to researchers’ research-based concerns, many a taxpayer dollar would have been saved!

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