VAM Design Flaw: Where You Teach Matters!

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(Illustration by Peter Hoey / For The Times)

 

As a teacher who works in a low socio-economic status (SES) public middle school, I can agree that the greatest in-school factor in promoting student growth is teacher quality. That being said, the main concern I have centers on how education reformers are holding teachers accountable for their students’ test scores. More specifically, I’m concerned with the DCPS IMPACT Plus Group 1 teacher evaluation system; and, how test scores negatively affect low SES DC public middle school teacher evaluations in Ward 8. I am not making “excuses”; I am merely shedding light on a significant flaw of the evaluation method.

There’s no denying that a student’s academic starting line is further back in Ward 8 than in Ward 3. (Refer to chart below). Given this disparity, allow me to elaborate further by providing an example. Let’s say a public middle school student in Ward 8 (A) enters the sixth grade with the ability to read and compute on a third grade level. His or her sixth grade teacher must raise student A’s academic performance by three years in time for the DC CAS (about 7 ½ months of instruction). By all accounts, making three years worth of academic gains in 7 ½ months is a Herculean effort for any teacher, regardless of SES background. Now let’s consider a student (B) that enters in the sixth grade on or above grade level for reading/computation. The teacher of student (B) must make sure the student continues on grade level proficiency. In other words, this amounts to one year’s growth. Now I ask you, which student would you prefer an evaluation: Student A or Student B? Which student would you bet your job security on: Student A or Student B?

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Although teachers don’t, and shouldn’t, choose their students, a decision to teach in certain schools definitely influences which students the teacher is most likely to meet. Ward 8 DC public middle schools consist of an overwhelming amount of students that are multiple years behind grade level. On the contrary, the Ward 3 public middle school consists of an overwhelming amount of student performing on or above grade level. Is there any coincidence student scores are lower in Ward 8 public middle schools? Are Ward 8 public middle school teachers more incompetent than Ward 3 public middle school teachers? Are Ward 3 public middle school teachers better at their craft? Are Ward 3 public middle school teachers more talented or more qualified to teach? It would be nothing short of an insult to answer yes to any of these questions.

If this problem stopped here, I would not be writing this piece. However, the damage to low SES public school teachers goes further. Let’s review highly effective teachers distribution chart. As you can see, the overwhelming amount of highly effective teachers belong to Ward 3, while the lowest percentage of highly effective teachers belong to Ward 8. Again, is this due to “incompetence” or “inexperience?” The unspoken reality is that Ward 8 public middle school teachers must raise student growth at almost three times the amount as Ward 3 public middle school teachers; yet, they’re least likely to receive praise or recognition for achieving a one to two-year(s) student growth. Instead, Ward 8 public middle school teachers receive criticisms and judgments for falling short on their unrealistic task.

Proponents of the VAM-based approach to teacher evaluations often attempt to explain how VAMs capture student “growth.” VAM fans are quick to suggest that VAMs account for student performance (growth or decline) because they’re benchmarked to the previous year’s test score. I love this argument. This line of reasoning not only “misses the mark,” but it also indicates how disconnected VAM fans are from the realities on the ground. Let me explain. Yes, a student’s previous year’s standardized score serves as benchmark. Yes, VAMs capture the “growth” or “decline” of a student’s performance on the following year’s standardized test. However, here’s where the disconnect occurs: The reading passages on a standardized test are “on grade level!” To suggest that a student, who is multiple grade levels behind, can magically access the standardized test passages is an enormous misunderstanding of the intricacies of reading comprehension, i.e. language acquisition, content knowledge, etc. It’s far more realistic to evaluate teachers on a 1 ½ year growth model than a standardized test (grade level) model.

Why Not Measure ALL Teachers the Same?

For the life of me, I can’t understand why education policy “experts” insist on holding high poverty public school teachers to a higher standard than low poverty public school teachers. This is absurd! VAMs are nothing more than a tool to reward low poverty public school teachers, while punish high poverty public school teachers. We need to re-evaluate the evaluation. Rather than task high poverty public school teachers with raising a student’s performance more than three times in 7 ½ months of instruction, let’s task ALL teachers with raising a student’s reading comprehension (Lexile score) by more than 100 points each year. Would this not level the teacher evaluation playing field? Don’t we want a fairer teacher evaluation system?

The chart below illustrates such a proposal. First, I used the 2012 CCSS Text Measures* to benchmark the Lexile ranges, and it simply serves as a guide to building a fairer teacher evaluation system. Second, I premise this proposed evaluation system on reduced class sizes, in order for teachers to effectively differentiate reading texts based on student data, i.e. student readiness levels. Third, I use a 125 point growth formula per academic year. Fourth, the intended Lexile score (ultimate goal) is to prepare students for college leveled texts, which is an approximate score of 1400 (College Freshman). Finally, I use an incoming sixth grade student as an example in this proposed growth model. Now, let’s examine the chart.

There are five categories assigned to students: 1) Advanced, 2) Proficient, 3) Basic, 4) Below Basic, and 5) At Risk. For the purposes of this model, an “advanced” student is an incoming sixth grader who is reading above the fifth grade level Lexile range. A “proficient” student is an incoming sixth grader who is reading “on” the fifth grade level Lexile range. A “basic” student is an incoming sixth grader who is reading on a fourth grade level Lexile range. A “below basic” student is an incoming sixth grade student who is reading on a third grade level Lexile range. Finally, an “at-risk” student is an incoming sixth grade student reading on a second grade level Lexile range. The term “at risk” applies to an incoming sixth grade student who risks falling further behind, thus, without targeted intervention, will likely drop out of high school.

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Let’s examine both ends of the proposed growth model. One one end of the model, an “at-risk” incoming sixth grade student is in dire need of targeted remediation. Assessing an “at-risk” incoming sixth grade student’s reading comprehension skills on a grade level standardized test is an affront to the education profession. This approach is unfair to the student and the teacher. Rather than waste valuable time and resources administering a “one-size-fits-all,” high-stakes test, we should focus on administering a leveled test, which sets an appropriate target of a 125 Lexile point growth by the end of the sixth grade. If this targeted assessment approach repeats throughout this student’s secondary school level career, then he or she stands a better chance at reaching the “1400″ target Lexile score. Thus, rather than fall further behind, and potentially drop out of high school, this student can experience small victories along the way towards his or her collegiate career.

On the other side of the model, an “advanced” incoming sixth grade student is in need of rigorous texts, and not simply “on grade materials.” Rather than task teachers with making sure this student remains “on or above” grade level, these students need a test based on 125 Lexile point growth. If this targeted approach repeats throughout this student’s secondary school level career, then he or she will comprehend well beyond the “1400″ target Lexile score. In other words, not only will this student be ready for his or her Freshman year, but also surpass the minimum requirements. All too often, teachers in low poverty public schools, i.e. Ward 3 public middle school, enjoy the opportunity to teach students who are performing “on or above” grade level. Although teaching is a challenging profession regardless of a school’s socio-economic status, it’s highly unfair to assume all classrooms are equal. They’re not! Rather than use a system that is inherently designed to choose “winners and losers,” education policy “experts” need to create a fairer system that evaluates ALL teachers the same.

Regardless of a student’s starting point, every teacher, needs to raise his or her students’ reading comprehension skills by 125 Lexile points. Rather than employ a one-size-fits-all teacher evaluation system or high-stakes standardized test, we – professional educators – need to “meet” our students at their actual performance level to “move” them toward the goal: prepare students for a successful collegiate career! Then, and only then, we will have a fair, professional teacher evaluation system.

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One thought on “VAM Design Flaw: Where You Teach Matters!

  1. The teacher evaluation system is not fair in DC. I’m teaching in Indiana and my annual evaluation is on hold. Our student’s testing scores are being questioned due to the computer problems that occurred during last year’s ISTEP testing cycle.

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