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.

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