A right way and a wrong way to link teachers and student test scores?

The Los Angeles Times plans to publish names of teachers and how well they do in raising their students' standardized test scores. Some say it will result in a backlash to emerging 'value added' analysis of teacher performance.

The Robert F. Kennedy Community Schools in Los Angeles will open in September. A controversy is brewing over whether the Los Angeles Times newspaper should publish teachers’ names along with an analysis of their students’ standardized test scores. Los Angeles Times

A controversy is brewing in Los Angeles over whether a newspaper should publish teachers’ names along with an analysis of how well they do in raising their students’ standardized test scores.

The debate has generated heated assertions that transparency should prevail at all costs, or, on the other side, that it’s unfair to label individual teachers using possibly flawed statistics. But the bigger questions – such as the way to responsibly use these kinds of data – are being lost, say some analysts. They worry that anger over the forthcoming Los Angeles Times article will cause a backlash against so-called "value added" analysis of teacher performance – which is the method the Times uses.

“This [episode with the L.A. Times] is where the advocates for value-added are getting a bit ahead of themselves,” says Douglas Harris, an education professor at the University of Wisconsin in Madison. “Teachers are already feeling under the gun on this kind of thing. They’re willing to go in this direction if it’s done right, but this is an example where [the paper is] not being careful, and it could easily backfire and undermine the more productive uses.”

“Value-added data” is the latest trend in teacher accountability: the idea that a student’s gains from the previous year's test – as opposed to his or her overall performance – can be measured and tied to the latest teacher. The hope is that the process weeds out a lot of external factors that can influence student achievement on the tests. While not a brand new idea – it was initially developed in Tennessee and Dallas, which have data going back many years – it’s only beginning to be used widely in districts and states, and many are just now getting the kind of data that makes such analyses possible.

The federal government has pushed for such systems, and it has urged states to link teacher evaluations and student performance.

But such evaluations remain controversial among many people, particularly unions.

“There are too many variables [in the testing process],” says A.J. Duffy, president of United Teachers Los Angeles. He is particularly critical of the Times database – and is calling for a boycott of the paper. But he says he also opposes using value-added data in evaluations at all, although he acknowledges it could be a useful tool to give teachers feedback. “I believe in a system that emphasizes the whole student,” not just standardized tests, he says.

Proponents of value-added say that’s a valid criticism, agreeing that no one should expect that student gains on a standardized test could capture the creativity or broader enrichment that goes on in many teachers’ classrooms. That’s why it should be only one tool among several used in teacher evaluations, they say.

The District of Columbia, for example, which earlier this summer attracted controversy for its decision to fire teachers based in part on value-added data, uses that data for 50 percent of the evaluation, relying on other measures such as classroom observation for the rest.

“No one is suggesting using it as a single measure of performance,” says Paige Kowalski, a senior associate at the Data Quality Campaign, which works with states to build high-quality data systems. Ms. Kowalski worries, though, that parents and others will interpret a database like the Times’ as doing just that.

Barnett Berry, president of the Center for Teaching Quality, is even more critical of the planned database, calling it “the equivalent of a newspaper indiscriminately listing the names of doctors, in rank, based on mortality rates, irrespective of the type of medicine they practice or the context in which they practice.” [Editor's note: The original version misspelled Mr. Berry's name.]

Value-added data can be useful, he and others say, but it’s important to acknowledge its limitations. It doesn’t take into account, for instance, chronic student absenteeism and learning gains due to summer school, after-school programs, or supplemental teachers, such as reading specialists. In many cases – particularly in high-poverty schools with high student mobility – a teacher may be graded on the performance of students she never taught, if they moved classes or schools after she was “linked” to them in the fall.

Almost everyone acknowledges being shocked by this first decision to make such data so public, and to link it to individual teachers – and a bit curious as to what the result will be.

“The big question is, is this a game changer?” says Kati Haycock, president of the Education Trust, which advocates educational equity and urges better teachers for disadvantaged kids. “Or is the approach so riddled with flaws that it will bring everything down? Nobody knows which will happen.”

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