Wednesday, August 8, 2012

Another UTLA Sellout—Evaluations Can Include Test Scores

Huck/Konopacki Labor Cartoons
The United Teachers of Los Angeles (UTLA) recently agreed with the Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD) to allow the use of student test scores as part of performance reviews beginning this fall, the Los Angeles Times reported, though a UTLA attorney later said the commitment was contingent on whether the union and LAUSD could negotiate an agreement on how the scores would be used in the evaluations.

I am calling the agreement a sellout not only because UTLA had recently opposed using such data in teacher evaluations, but because the data are not an accurate measurement of teacher skill or ability.

The accuracy of such Value Added Measures (VAM) is still up for debate. Teacher trainer Grant Wiggins argues that VAM “models accurately predict over a three-year period, performance at the extremes,” which means that IF you average VAM scores over three years, you can identify the really great teachers and the really lousy ones. The vast majority of teachers (who fall somewhere in the middle) would thus be getting inaccurate VAM scores and potentially bad evaluations as a result. Furthermore, because most school districts that use VAM are using them to evaluate teachers on a yearly or biyearly basis, even those falling at the extremes may be getting inaccurate VAM scores since they are not averaging their scores over a three year period.

This, alone, is a compelling argument against using VAM. However, there are a host of other good reasons not to use VAM.

One of the assumptions of VAM is that a good teacher can help low income students improve as much as higher income students. This is not necessarily the case. Wealth does not simply cause students to earn higher test scores, but provides a variety of advantages that benefit affluent students throughout their lifetimes, including better health, greater access to enriching extracurricular activities, and a significantly lower risk of low birth weight, malnutrition and environmentally-induced illnesses. This decreases the chances that an affluent child will develop learning disabilities or impaired cognitive development and may increase how quickly they can learn and how much of the learning is retained. In other words, teachers at affluent schools may see greater gains in student learning because of their students’ socioeconomic backgrounds.

How much a student improves from year to year is also dependent to some extent on their previous teachers. For example, a chemistry student who had a bad math or science teacher the previous year may be lacking so much of the prerequisite knowledge and skills that their growth in chemistry is severely limited.

Despite the apparent acquiescence by the teachers’ union, there was still criticism from an attorney representing parents who sued the district for “violating” the four-decade-old Stull Act, which requires the use of student achievement in teacher evaluations. The attorney accused UTLA of saying one thing in court and then changing their position.

The Stull Act, however, requires the use of student achievement data, not necessarily test scores. It also does not specific exactly how that data should be utilized.

As terrible as it is for their members that UTLA has agreed to allow the use of such data in their members’ evaluations, at least they are trying to maintain some involvement in determining exactly how that data will be used. This can hardly be seen as being duplicitous, as the parents’ attorney has suggested. Rather, it sounds more like an attempt by the union to collaborate with management in the abuse of their members.

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