Teacher evaluations on trial

By

Jennifer Priest Mitchell

Teacher evaluations based on student test scores have become the norm in public schools across America. The frequency and stakes attached to testing have escalated in the last two decades, especially after federal policymakers tied education funding to test scores.

Audrey Amrein-Beardsley, professor at Mary Lou Fulton Teachers College said, “Ever since President Obama’s Race to the Top competition, which cost the nation $4.35 billion in federal recovery act funds, states have increased the extent to which they use high-stakes test-based measures to hold teachers accountable for students’ test scores and the extent to which those scores improve over time.”

She has researched value-added models for more than a decade and published multiple research articles and two books on the topic. VAMs are statistical models designed to help evaluate student test scores from one year to the next. A former math teacher, Amrein-Beardsley has recently been called upon as an expert witness in legal cases in which educators faced consequences, including possible termination of their contracts, due to student test scores. She said many states reach out to her when they consider whether VAMs are the best way to measure teacher effectiveness. 

VAMs hold teachers responsible for student test scores. Teachers may face revocation of tenure or denial of merit pay increases when student scores do not increase at the rates an adopted model mandates. “Since 1979,” said Amrein-Beardsley, “and probably before, testing has been a complicated and controversial issue in our country’s schools. Florida was the first state to attach consequences to poor student test results in schools. Interestingly, though, the highest performing states, such as Connecticut, Vermont and Washington, still don’t tie test scores to positive or negative outcomes for teachers and schools. This, despite the fact that the nation has been ‘riding on’ test-based accountability reform efforts for more than 35 years.”

Amrein-Beardsley became involved in a high-profile case in 2009 in Texas. “Houston Independent School District, a high-needs urban district, fired teachers based on the evaluation scores generated by a model similar to the VAMs,” she said. Teachers there were not going to have their contracts renewed based on student test scores before she provided expert testimony. Earlier this year, the school board voted to stop implementing the value-added system. She said, “Apparently, after almost one decade of use, Houston officials realized that VAMs never drove improvements in performance, which is especially important, taking into consideration the number of teachers they fired because of it. No increases in student achievement were registered over this period of time when VAMS were in place there, and the district declined as compared to all other districts in the state. Hence, they voted to get rid of VAMs."

In New York, her research helped lead to changes in statewide policy when teachers receive low-effectiveness scores based on value-added model scores. Sheri Lederman, after teaching fourth grade for 18 years, received a low teacher score in a VAM-based review and faced possible termination. Lederman challenged the case and, with the help of eight key witnesses and Amrein-Beardsley, was able to keep her teaching position. The state Supreme Court judge ruled the state’s value-added system “arbitrary and capricious.” Among other changes, an administrative appeal process is now available in New York to teachers who receive low-effectiveness scores. 

Amrein-Beardsley created a blog, VAMboozled!, to make her research, and that of others, on this topic more accessible. VAMboozled! is about issues surrounding teacher evaluation, teacher accountability,  VAMs in America’s public schools and related issues surrounding educational reform. She currently has more than 15,000 followers.

In January 2016, President Obama signed the Every Student Succeeds Act, which says states are no longer required to use VAMs or other methods to measure student, teacher or school success to receive funds. Amrein-Beardsley said some states are still adhering to the old policy, and in some of those states, she is being consulted regarding VAM use. Other states, including Arizona, are now using a more broad review of success and are not tying funds or negative consequences to test scores. She said that states are moving toward evaluations based on human judgment and combining more qualitative data on educators’ performance. Holistic evaluation systems for teacher reviews could include supervisor and peer observations; student and parent surveys; and self-reporting and reflections from teachers. Amrein-Beardsley said, “There is progress in this area. I hope all states will develop more effective ways to review teachers’ impact.”