Wednesday, September 08, 2010


by Gary Ravani - from Thoughts on Public Education (TOP-Ed) - the blog formerly known as The Educated Guess |

9/02/10 • Within the last few days, the Bureau of Land Management, at the encouragement of a group of House members, has asked the National Research Council (NRC) to review its policies for wild horses and burros.  If only someone would show the same kind of concern about the nation’s school children and education.

Actually the NRC, the highest scientific body in the nation, developed an unsolicited review of test use in teacher evaluation to include in a letter to Education Secretary Arne Duncan.

The NRC cautioned against an over-reliance on test scores in making high-stakes decisions on teachers. As the NRC put it: “Although the idea has intuitive appeal, a great deal is unknown about the potential and the limitations of alternative statistical models for evaluating teachers.”

The NRC specifically questioned the use of “value added methodology” (VAM), a technique using student test scores over several years to assess “teacher effectiveness.” NRC doubts VAM is “fair, reliable, and valid.”

And then along came stories in the Los Angeles Times. The stories contained the Times’s public ratings of Los Angeles Unified School District teachers using VAM.

The Times relied on a moonlighting economist from RAND to crunch the numbers. This in spite of the fact that RAND stated in a 2005 study: “the research base is currently insufficient to support the use of [VAM] for high-stakes decisions about individual teachers…”

The American Educational Research Association, and other groups involved in testing, has guidelines for the use of standardized tests. These guidelines include: 1) don’t use tests designed to do one thing (assess student achievement) to do something else (measure teacher effectiveness); and, 2) don’t use any single assessment to make high stakes decisions. The Times’s actions violate these guidelines.

Since the Times published the story, experts from across the nation have weighed in condemning its actions. The Economic Policy Institute gathered 20 experts, ranging from academia to the commercial testing industry, who assert that, even with the most sophisticated analysis, student test scores are too unreliable and inaccurate for use in evaluating teachers. Fifteen other California university scholars responded in an opinion piece that VAM “is not exact enough to justify identifying individual teachers as “effective” or “ineffective.”

Almost everyone agrees the tests we use need overhauling. They over-emphasize short-term memory of facts and under-emphasize critical thinking skills. Experts agree that tying more teacher accountability to these tests drives more teaching to the tests. This has led to a dangerous narrowing of curriculum. Particularly in distressed communities, the teaching of science, history, music, and art has been eliminated. The use of VAM can only exacerbate this narrowing.

The Times insists that VAM is objective and rigorous. A policy with little scientific reliability or validity is transformed via some weird alchemy into sound public policy by ratcheting down on rigor. The Times has been dinged repeatedly for eliminating the journalistic firewall between news, business, and opinion. Once again, the Times presents its editorial infatuations as fact, and this time to the detriment of instruction, students, and teachers.

  1. CarolineSF (aka Caroline Grannan) comments

    September 3, 2010 • 11:07 am

    It’s beyond the scope of reporters and editors to determine how to evaluate members of another profession and then proceed to publish the evaluation. That was already a collapse of journalistic standards and ethics, and the public shaming with names and pictures of specific teachers deemed by the Times to be unsuccessful was more egregious still. (Caroline Grannan was an editor at the San Jose Mercury News for 12 years)

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