Thursday, October 14, 2010

Response to LA Times Article

This is our response to a recent Los Angeles Times article regarding school test scores that was published in the LA Times on October 1, 2010.

Collateral Damage?: The Problems of Teacher Assessment
By Phillip Harris, Bruce Smith, & Joan Harris

"We've got to be able to identify teachers who are doing well [and] teachers who are President Obama said on September 27 in an interview with Matt Lauer on NBC's Today show. "And, ultimately, if some teachers aren't doing a good job, they've got to go."

Don't think too hard about it, and everything about education reform seems so simple, doesn't it? Find out who are the ineffective teachers, try to help them improve, and if that fails, then fire them. What could we possibly be overlooking?

For starters, let's look at the President's first point: distinguishing between teachers who are doing well and teachers who aren't. That should be easy enough. That's what the various value-added systems of evaluation seek to do: compare students' test scores early in the year with the same students' scores late in the year and, after some statistical legerdemain, voilĂ !: a measure of growth to judge a teacher's effectiveness. How simple it all seems to politicians and policy makers!

But like most of what passes for reform in public education, the more you know about it, the less likely it seems that it will achieve what you hope for. Like charter schools and merit pay (which also depends on finding a sound way to judge teaching performance), using value-added efforts to improve the teaching force has surface appeal that just doesn't stand up to close scrutiny. And anything that will affect the lives of so many teachers and so many of our children is worth at least a little close scrutiny.

We've argued in our new book, The Myths of Standardized Testing, that the tests aren't very good at measuring real student achievement, or predicting future success, or motivating improvement, or even being objective. So using these flawed measures for value-added assessment, a purpose they weren't designed for, just seems way off base. But we're not assessment experts, so maybe we're missing something.

Here's what those who know best say. Five years ago, Henry Braun, then at ETS, now at Boston College, argued that value-added assessment wasn't yet ready for prime time -- and might never be the panacea some of its proponents hoped. Now, just three weeks before the President sat down with Matt Lauer, Eva Baker of the National Center for Evaluation Standards, and Student Testing at UCLA and a list of co-authors that constitutes a Who's Who of Assessment issued a report titled Problems with the Use of Student Test Scores to Evaluate Teachers (Economic Policy Institute, 2010). In that report, the co-authors cited non-random assignment of students and teachers, the failure to distinguish the contributions of multiple teachers over time, and the instability of the ratings from year to year for the same teacher as problems that made using value-added methods an unwise choice, at least for the time being. We think if you can't resolve the instability problem, the whole effort becomes a crap shoot.

But using a complex assessment mechanism for unsupported purposes is always fraught with problems and unintended consequences. Already blowback has begun. With the LA Times' recent publication of the test scores of students linked to individual teachers and schools, we now have the apparent suicide of Rigoberto Ruelas, Jr., a fifth-grade teacher who was upset that his scores were not higher. Described by former students as someone who "took the worst students, and tried to change their lives," Ruelas has now lost his own. Collateral damage?

Phillip Harris is Executive Director of the Association for Educational Communications & Technology. He is the former Director of the Center for Professional Development at Phi Delta Kappa International and was a member of the faculty of Indiana University for 22 years, serving in both the Psychology Department and the School of Education. He is the author of The Myths of Standardized Tests: Why They Don't Tell You What You Think They Do (December 2010), with co-authors Bruce Smith and Joan Harris.

Reponse to the New York Times Report on School Performance

This is our reponse to the article titled "New York School Test, Warning Signs Ignored", which was published on October 10th, 2010 in the New York Times

October 13, 2010
Heads Up, Mr. Mayor!
By Phillip Harris and Bruce Smith

No doubt it comes as a shock to Glen Beck fans and to many politicians and policy makers, including those who run our nation's school systems, but experts really do know a thing or two about their areas of expertise. Could it hurt to pay some attention to them?

One obvious example came to the fore this past week when the New York Times ran a longer-than-usual story on the release of test scores for New York City schools. Headlined "On New York School Tests, Warning Signs Ignored," the story by Jennifer Medina makes a real effort to tell a complicated tale of numbers-based accountability gone rogue, with warnings from experts ignored and another unholy marriage of political ambition and good intentions. "The mayor uses data and metrics to determine whether policies are failing or succeeding," says Howard Wolfson, deputy mayor for government affairs and communications. Sounds like a good idea -- until you come down from the rhetorical clouds and see how that's worked out for the schools. We have argued that a technology as limited as standardized testing could never be expected to give you a fair and complete picture of student learning, teacher performance, or the success of any school system, much less one as large and complex as New York City's (see The Myths of Standardized Tests). But even if you disagree with us, when you reward or punish schools and educators on the basis of those test scores, you should expect them to rise -- and rapidly. To everyone's consternation but no one's surprise, that's just what happened in the Big Apple.

The downside, well-known to social scientists, is that when you tie important consequences to a quantitative measure, you will "corrupt" the measure. In this case, the test scores will be artificially "inflated." That doesn't necessarily mean that anyone broke any laws or did anything morally questionable. When any district uses a similar form of a test for a number of years in a row, the scores of its students will rise. That's score "inflation," it's predictable, and it means that the indicator -- i.e., the test -- is "corrupted." It no longer gives a valid measure of the student skills it was supposed to measure.

How does this come about if no one is blatantly cheating? Almost all teachers really do care about their students. So when teachers are familiar with the form of a test that's used year after year, they may adapt some of their teaching, consciously or not, to help their students perform better. If schools, teachers, or students are rewarded or punished according to the scores -- that is, if the stakes are high -- then teachers will try even harder to prepare their students for the tests. Throw in the national industry that creates and markets test-preparation materials that many schools use, and you have the perfect incubator for score inflation: familiar tests, high stakes, and organized preparation efforts.

Now a confusing mishmash of misunderstanding has the mayor and the school chancellor defending scores that are so high that ordinary observers -- much less testing experts -- suspect that they must be "inflated." Does it seem likely that 82% of the city's students were proficient in math in 2009? What were your city's scores? Now when a bona fide testing expert, Harvard's Daniel Koretz, proposes a plan to "audit" the tests and get a sound measure of the score inflation, so as not to deceive the public, he and his colleagues are turned down, more than once. Meanwhile, Hizzoner goes on claiming a record of success in running the city's schools. Maybe so, maybe no. Maybe the mayor should allow a disinterested look at his chosen measuring stick.

Phillip Harris is Executive Director of the Association for Educational Communications & Technology. He is the former Director of the Center for Professional Development at Phi Delta Kappa International and was a member of the faculty of Indiana University for 22 years, serving in both the Psychology Department and the School of Education. Bruce Smith was a member of the editorial staff of the Phi Delta Kappan, the flagship publication of Phi Delta Kappa International, the association for professional educators. They are co-authors with Joan Harris of The Myths of Standardized Tests: Why They Don't Tell You What You Think They Do.

Friday, February 26, 2010

On Friday, Indiana Superintendent of Public Instruction Tony Bennett had much to say in the Herald-Times with regard to supposed silver lining in the current budget crunch facing all school corporations in Indiana. But once he got under way, what was offered, far from being silver, was a tired medley of tried-and-true slogans and half-truths with which so-called conservatives have sought to weaken our system of public education. Some even blatantly wish to privatize it. Now is not the time for such political gas-baggery.

A case in point is Bennett's premise: "I don't think our population believes that money automatically brings quality." Certainly not with that skewed adverb "automatically" slipped in. But if more money doesn't necessarily (other people can slip in qualifying adverbs, too!) lead to excellence, does that imply that less money does so? Run that one past an eighth-grader who is being introduced to elementary logic. A does not imply B does not therefore mean that B implies A. But if that's too abstract our state supe to understand, maybe he could ask the citizens of Carmel if they'd like to have the per-pupil expenditures in their district equalized with those of the folks in, say, Franklin. That seems fair, and after all, more money doesn't mean more quality.

The truth is that there are thresholds above which additional money will no doubt yield diminishing returns on the investment. On the other end of the scale, there are thresholds below which the education of children suffers. We do not know exactly where each of these tipping points is located, but I submit that it is disingenuous to pretend that they don't exist.

Or consider where Bennett is willing to locate the blame for the current crisis. On switching from property taxes to income and sales taxes as a source of revenue for education? Oh no, we can't do that. Cutting taxes is always a good idea, and cutting property taxes is such a good fiscal idea that we ought to remove from future legislators the option of ever raising them above a specified cap. The reason representative democracies have constitutional governments is to spell out broad constraints within which democratically elected officials can operate for the public good. Place too many constraints on the future actions of elected officials, and they won't be in a position to respond to future crises. When voters decide this November whether to tie the hands of their yet-to-be elected representatives, I hope they remember the statewide anguish brought on by destabilizing school funding and at the very least prevent the property-tax cap from being enshrined in the state constitution.

Finally, just a word of two about Bennett's purported solutions: consolidation, pay cuts in exchange for some spending flexibility, and merit pay/competition for schools. On the first, I'll just say Ellettsville. This idea isn't new in Monroe County, but for some reason it just never seems to appeal to the folks from Richland-Bean Blossom. Maybe Bennett should pay them a call as well, say, at their next school board meeting and hear what they have to say.

On exchanging pay cuts for the freedom to spend some other designated funds to support the general fund, I'll say this. It's probably coming in some form. The teachers know it, and readers of the H-T know it. But it is a temporary solution to a manufactured crisis and in no way will put the school budgets back on a sound and stable footing. And while Bennett acknowledges that "he's no economist," his attempt to explain teacher pay using such figures as six hours a day and only 180 days per year is laughable. Do he teachers in Bennett's family work such short days? Do they do no preparation, do no grading, and seek no professional development outside of school hours? I don't think so, and to imply that teachers work that way is insulting at best. I hope he apologized to his spouse.

Finally, is anyone else tired of hearing how merit pay and any number of ideas grounded in competition will cause schools to improve? I hope so, because the message is stale, and it wasn't very substantive to begin with. In a few locales (notably Denver), systems involving some sort of differentiated pay scales not based solely on tenure and longevity have proved to be workable. No stunning turnarounds for schools, but workable. These are complex, nuanced systems negotiated with teachers, administrators, and the public involved from the start. Flat-out competitive systems haven't worked well and make the mistake of assuming that education is a zero-sum game, that is, if the kids in my class succeed and I get a bonus, there's less left in the teacher compensation pie for you. Do you want to help me work on my lesson plans to see if I can help my eighth-graders learn their algebra better? Probably not so much.

Educating our children concerns every American, those with children now in schools, those like me whose children have moved on, and those without children or whose children are not yet in school. All of us depend on the public schools to develop the next generation of citizens. For an institution with such an important charge, we expect our leaders to provide stable funding, frequent public discussion of aims and purposes, and, as much as possible, to put politics aside. What we see in Superintendent Bennett's statements to the Herald -Times fails on all counts and is not worthy of his constituents.

Wednesday, February 17, 2010


So now in mid-February 2010 the school board in Houston has approved a policy to allow the district to fire teachers whose students fail to show adequate growth on the state's standardized test. Meanwhile, the Czar of New York City -- sorry, make that hizzoner Mr. Bloomberg -- and his grand vizier -- I mean Schools Chancellor Joel Klein -- have decided that, for those teachers who are in the bottom quartile of performance (determined how exactly?), student test scores will "inform tenure decisions." Both ideas have met some resistance from teachers, though not as much as you'd expect from their unions.

Now, to take the Houston case, tracking student growth seems to make sense. But the valued-added technology is not yet as good as many of its proponents would like it to be. In fact, value-added testing or the use of growth models may never be good enough to allow us to say with confidence how much of a student's growth is caused by anything the teacher did or didn't do. (Forget for a moment whether the test can measure growth that really matters.) Pretending that the problems have been resolved won't make them go away, no matter how many school boards, state legislatures, or even U.S. congresses vote that it should be so.

At the moment, both test scores and other kinds of measures (yes, there are some!) ought to be made available in a timely way for formative purposes. But certainly they're not ready for the prime time of summative assessment, with the highest stakes possible attached. Student failure rates reflect many influences, only one of which is the performance of the teachers. Student failure rates are also intimately connected to poverty levels, extend across generations, and will only be exacerbated by ratcheting up the stakes on yet another quantitative indicator.

Already home to numerous scandals with regard to data manipulation and outright cheating, the state of Texas and the city of Houston -- and soon many other large cities -- will be subjected to another round of policy makers' chanting in self-congratulatory ignorance: "Campbell's Law? We don't need no stinking Campbell's Law!" But the distortions will follow as surely as the night follows the day.

To the AFT, allegedly the protector of the interests of teachers in both Houston and New York City, there's only one sensible message: Just say no! Sometimes you have to put your money where your mouth is, and bartering your purpose for a "seat at the table," which has been the ineffectual modus operandi of the NEA for a generation, is unworthy of our teachers or their representative organizations.

Moreover, as more states twist themselves into contorted shapes in order to qualify for Race to the Top funds, we see a range of serious abuses of teachers and the children they are responsible for. But rather than continue to rant on my own, let me share with you what my late friend Gerald Bracey said on the matter as recently as September 2009, just six weeks or so before he died. Here's the text of an e-mail from Jerry, which I'm glad I retrieved from my Sent Folder:


The President of the United States and his Secretary of Education are violating one of the most fundamental principles concerning test use: Tests should be used only for the purpose for which they were developed. If they are to be used for some other purpose, then careful attention must be paid to whether or not this purpose is appropriate. This position was developed jointly by the American Educational Research Association, the American Psychological Association, and the National Council on Measurement in Education in their document "The Standards for Educational and Psychological Testing." The President and his Secretary want to use existing tests, willy-nilly to evaluate teachers. They should both be ashamed. The President should be chastised and Secretary Duncan should be fired on the simple grounds of incompetence. From the American Psychological Association’s “Appropriate Use of High-Stakes Testing in Our Nation’s Schools:” “It is important to remember that no test is valid for all purposes. Indeed, tests vary in their intended uses and in their ability to provide meaningful assessments of student learning.”

It is not the case that a test is a test is a test. Research into the use of existing tests to evaluate teachers has called that use into question. (I summarized other people’s research on these issues in my May and December 2004 Research columns in Phi Delta Kappan.) More recent studies, summarized in the July 15 issue of Education Week by Debra Viadero, cast further doubt on the whole enterprise. States are rolling over and playing dead on this issue because a) they are desperate for money and b) it is unlikely that people like Bloomberg or the Governator—or Duncan-- have a clue about the abuse they are permitting and advocating. Duncan’s enthusiastic championing of a “reform” that has been shown not to work very well—charter schools—can only be taken as an instrument for union busting. If the NEA and AFT won’t stand up to this abuse of testing, they deserve to be busted.


But the madness continues unabated. I don't fancy myself to be a prophet, but I will go out a limb and I say that this, too, shall fail.

Those who want to follow some really thoughtful exchanges on this an other topics related to the current silliness ought to visit the Bridging Differences blog, hosted at the New York Times website. There, Diane Ravitch and Deborah Meier find that their differences are a lot smaller than many folks would have predicted. Of course, when the subject is the errant nonsense being foisted on educators by those in Washington and the nation's state capitals, it's fairly easy for two sensible people to find common ground -- and to keep their feet firmly planted thereon.

Sunday, February 14, 2010

Important Community Meeting

The Monroe County Community School Corporation will have two public meetings this week to discuss the proposed cuts due to state revenue decline. The recommended cuts by the administration need to be reviewed and responded to by the citizens of Monroe County. If the cuts are accepted it will put our school district in a position to not serve the reason it was created. There can be no acceptable reason to compromise our educational system, as it is the basis for the future of the community and the region. If we as citizens don't let the leadership know what we want then we have no one to blame but ourselves. From the list of proposed cuts it is clear that the current leadership is taking the easy way out. The suggestion we have made to reduce the length of the school year is not even on the list of items to consider. The current list of cuts is like death by a 1,000 cuts!

Friday, February 5, 2010

Vi Simpson Responds

January 29, 2010

Dear Mrs. Harris,

Thank you for your recent email expressing your concern with the cuts made to the education budget. I appreciate you taking the time to provide such thoughtful suggestions for alternative ways to address the proposed funding shortfall. I have noted your ideas about ISTEP testing and will continue to research these options.

In announcing his cuts to both K-12 and higher education, the Governor is relying on information from an updated revenue forecast that was presented to the budget committee in December. Unfortunately, the revenue forecasts used incomplete information to reach its conclusions.

I believe the governor is acting prematurely by cutting education. The state has a 1.4 billion dollar reserve, including the rainy day fund, which could be used to hold us over until the revenue picture becomes clearer after income tax filings. The Governor has the authority to reduce or withhold budget allocations or distributions, but he also has the ability to restore cuts should the revenue picture improve. The budget agency, which is part of the executive branch, made several reductions in several important areas that were covered by the legislative budget that we produced. The Governor is ignoring the priorities set out by the legislature.

Be assured that I am staying on top of this. Hopefully, we will find positive improvements in the state's revenue picture and we will be able to restore the cuts that the Governor made to education.

Again, thank you for taking the time to contact me. Please continue to keep me informed on matters of concern to you.


Vi Simpson
State Senator
District 40

Thursday, February 4, 2010

I attended the presentation by Alfie Kohn to the Indiana Superintendents meeting in Indianaoplis today and he received a standing ovation at the end of his presentation. He made many significant points about the problems of using standardized tests to judge children and evaluate teachers. He really put out a challenge to the Governor and State Superintendent about their recent statements and suggestions for changes in the Indiana schools. I hope that some of the individuals who were there will also post their views and thoughts about his presentation. He talked about the problem with standards and the emphasis on teaching just to them. He stated that schools and districts that focus on test scores are little more than test prep centers. He felt that whatever is measured by standardized test it isn't real learning. The overall message is that we as professional educators have to protect our students and teachers from the evils of the testing mentality. Suptenintendents can and should protect their teachers and their students from the policy makers who can think of nothing but increasing test scores.

Check out some of Alfie's publication on his webiste at He has written a lot about how to really create a student centered educational opportunity.

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

Responses to the Suggestion

We are getting a lot of response to our suggestion that considerable revenue can be saved by suspending the state testing and reducing the number of school days that students and teachers actually are together. These responses are coming from a variety of teachers and parents who are concerned about the consequences of staff reductions and increased class size. We are hearing from people who don't have children in school that see the impact this loss of revenue will have on our children. An article in the February 1,2010, Columbus Dispatch in Ohio by Charlie Boss titled Turn the Page on Rote Tests is an excellent piece that provides a little different perspective. Check out The education page.

Alfie Kohn will be speaking Thursday to the Indiana Superintendents Association and has indicated he will reference the recommendation as a courageous move by the leadership of the schools in Indiana. Check out his website

We are encouraging everyone we can to spread the word. We have heard from Oregon to Florida and New York to Arizona. We can make a difference if we join together to make sure that the children are not sacrificed in these difficult times.

Friday, January 29, 2010

States Faced with Budget Crisis

I have sent the following letter to the newspaper in Bloomington Indiana which is the Herald-Times.

A little creative thinking can minimize the negative impact on the MCCSC of the 3.8 million dollar funding shortfall. One solution that does not involve sacrificing our children's learning by firing teachers and increasing class sizes is simply to suspend the ISTEP assessment for two years.

The savings from this "cut" would come from two budget items: 1) the direct expense of the test and the cost of scoring it; and 2) the five days added to the school year when ISTEP was implemented. Recall that, when ISTEP was put in place the school year was increased from 175 days to 180 days to provide the time to administer the test.

The most current figures from the MCCSC annual report (February 10, 2009) show a cost of $615,707 per day of operation. This figure is derived from multiplying the average annual expenditure of $10,100 per student times an enrollment of 10,973 students, which yields an annual figure of nearly $111 million. Dividing this number by 180 days produces a daily cost for MCCSC of more than $600,000. Thus, reducing the school year by five days yields a saving of nearly $3.1 million. Including the cost of the test and its processing would provide the full savings the district needs.

We can think of at least three concerns that would need to be met if this idea is to take shape. First, the governor and state legislature would need to pass a bill immediately that would allow a district to temporarily suspend the test. But this IS an emergency. Second, we would need to make use of alternative sources of data for the placement of students, but such information already exists in the form of teacher observations and performance work of the students. Finally, we could use these same alternative sources of data for purposes of teacher accountability.

If our primary aim is to ensure that our children have the education they deserve, with the teachers they deserve, in classes small enough to be effective, we should be willing to forgo ISTEP testing to help us get through this budget crisis without sacrificing our children’s education.

Phillip Harris, EdD, Executive Director of Association for Educational Communication Technology 812-335-7675

Joan Harris, MS, Third Grade Teacher – University Elementary School