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Undernews is the online report of the Progressive Review, edited by Sam Smith, who covered Washington during all or part of ten of America's presidencies and who has edited alternative journals since 1964. The Review, which has been on the web since 1995, is now published from Freeport, Maine. We get over 5 million article visits a year. See for full contents of our site

February 12, 2010


Houston Chronicle - More than 400 teachers in the Houston school district have performed so poorly that their students have lost ground, according to HISD, and those educators' jobs could be on the line if they don't improve.

HISD Superintendent Terry Grier is asking the school board to give final approval to a policy that would allow the district to fire teachers whose students don't make enough progress on standardized tests. . .

With teachers on edge, Grier and board members have emphasized that the Houston Independent School District will provide training and mentoring to those who are struggling and will not oust them based solely on a year of bad test scores. . .

But, Grier said, "teachers who cannot or will not meet district standards could lose their positions with the district."

Data provided by HISD show that, over the last three years, 421 teachers have gotten far lower-than-expected progress from their students on standardized tests. That represents about 12 percent of the teachers the policy could affect and 3 percent of all teachers in the district.

"Don't forget that we have approximately 13,000 teachers in HISD," Grier said. "The vast majority are doing a good job."

Some of the teachers may have poor scores in one subject but rate highly in another. In those cases, Grier has suggested that principals could switch teaching assignments instead of turning to termination. . . .

The district only tracks the individual performance of teachers in grades three through 8 in the subjects of math, science, social studies and language arts. These 3,500 or so teachers would be the ones affected by HISD's plan to include so-called value-added scores in formal job evaluations and as a potential reason for dismissal.

Standardized test data is not available for teachers of lower grades or elective classes. High school teachers get rated on the performance of their entire department, such as math or science.

The district's two largest employee groups, the HFT and the Congress of Houston Teachers, have questioned the accuracy and fairness of the value-added data since the district began using it a few years ago to decide who gets performance bonuses.

Put simply, the value-added analysis by North Carolina statistician Bill Sanders looks at a student's test score history to project his or her scores the next year. Teachers are rated on whether their students met, exceeded or fell short of expectations. . .


Gerald W, Bracey, Rethinking Schools, 2000 - Educators often have difficulty specifying what is "good." They have much less trouble with the concept of "better." To get "better," they assess the current state of affairs, take that as a baseline and try to improve on it. This likely explains the great interest in the "value-added" model of teacher effectiveness, constructed by William Sanders at the University of Tennessee, which has been in place in that state since 1992.

Sanders claims to have developed a technique for identifying those teachers who make kids "better" - they add value to the children by increasing the children's test scores. Some of the results are impressive: Children who have three consecutive years of what Sanders calls effective teachers have sharply rising test scores; students stuck with three years of ineffective teachers have plummeting test scores.

Behind this apparently simple and precise outcome, though, are difficulties and uncertainties. To begin with, since teachers are defined as effective on the basis of their ability to produce test-score changes, it should not surprise us that children who have such "effective" teachers sequentially would have rising test scores. It's circular.

More importantly, the entire model depends on the acceptance of multiple-choice tests as adequate and appropriate measures of educational outcomes and acceptance of changes in test scores as the sole indicators of effectiveness. A much more appropriate label for the teachers who change test scores would be "test-effective." In practice, Sanders works only with norm-referenced standardized tests because they produce the extended scale he needs for his analysis, namely, percentile ranks that run from 1 to 99. A scoring system like the 5-point Advanced Placement test scale or many states' scales for writing assessment would be too broad, though in theory, performance tests could yield percentile ranks.

Sanders and his colleagues have argued that multiple-choice questions can measure higher-order thinking and complex knowledge. They can, but only in rare settings. . .

Not only does the model rest on multiple-choice questions, it requires that every child be tested every year in every subject. It is thus a budget drain on most school systems, but a boon for test makers.

What is badly lacking from the Sanders model is any research on what the test-effective teachers actually do to improve test scores. For the kinds of skills tested in the elementary years, the teachers might well be relying on "drill and kill" work sheet activities. Such activities will indeed raise test scores, but few educators would call their use good pedagogy. Indeed, as summarized by psychometrician Robert Linn, the knowledge shown by gains in test scores does not generalize. That is, the skills are specific to the test. They do not transfer and do not represent increases in general achievement.

Also missing from the model is any independent evidence that the test-effective teachers are perceived as generally effective by parents, administrators and other teachers. Everything hangs on test scores.

Where such tests are important in accountability schemes, teaching to the test will be even more prevalent. Important learning that is not and often cannot be measured with multiple-choice tests will not be counted in the determination of value gained. For schools that focus on more expansive and richer areas of learning, "value added" cannot represent what the school is trying to accomplish. In short, while ostensibly a means to assess progress in learning, "value added" reinforces the most narrowing aspect of testing-thereby reducing, not increasing, real value. . .

Suspicions about the utility of this particular value-added model are increased by reports that crucial teacher quality statistics are unstable. A teacher who is very effective one year, might not be the next year. This raises fundamental and vexing questions about the model's accuracy. Again, in the absence of open and scholarly debate, these questions cannot be addressed.

Finally, there are educational implications of the process that go beyond Sanders' specific model. As former U.S. Commissioner of Education Harold Howe put it in a letter written to the Washington Post, "In my view, what is really happening in our schools is that the worship of accountability so dominates every aspect of learning that it is narrowly defined into what can be measured conveniently by standardized tests. Sanders appears to be giving it an effective but tragic boost."


Blogger Lars said...

The effectiveness of standardized tests for measuring learning or quality teaching seems like a very open question that has been adopted by the national media and people in leadership positions all too readily. These people clamor for evidence of effective teaching, but nobody that I have seen is looking for the evidence that standardized tests improve anything about how we educate students.

February 12, 2010 3:18 PM  

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