Catherine Martinez: 'Value Added Model' of no value to teaching

The ironically named Student Success Act of 2011 mandated something called the Valued Added Model, which attempts to quantify each teacher’s influence on each student. The complicated formula purports to predict what a student’s normal gain scores on a standardized test will be from one year to another. If a student gains more or loses ground, the formula is supposed to identify a teacher’s responsibility for the results and reward or punish him or her.

Value Added Model formula.
Value Added Model formula.

When I was just out of college 1972, I could not find a teaching job and went to work the afternoon shift at a shirt factory in northern Minnesota. When I started working, they gave me a test to see what my “normal” rate was. My salary, $1.60 back in the early 1970’s, was based on what my base rate was. As I learned the profession and increased my production, my base salary increased as well. When I came in, the factory was just transitioning to all computerized sewing. Our department did one part of the shirt, the collars. The computers were pre-programmed but we had to set up the layers right or the collar would be sewed wrong. We might have to rip out the whole seam or get no credit because the collar was a “second.” Because the computers were very new, they were sensitive to dust and lint and would often go down and prevent us from working through no fault of our own. By the time I left six months later, I had a greater appreciation for the value of the American worker and a college education, and my salary had increased to a whopping $2.22 per hour.

I mention this experience because the inclusion of the Value Added Model (VAM) in teacher evaluations is really treating educators like factory workers. The base line is each student’s normal rate of progression. Teachers are threatened with poor evaluations or even losing their jobs. Bonuses (which in reality don’t exist) are dangled in front of them like carrots to “encourage” them to dedicate more time and energy to boosting student achievement.

There are several problems with this model. First and foremost is that what is good for an individual teacher may not be good for the school and the school’s grade. School grades are based on multiple factors including, of course, overall student achievement on the state standardized tests, but also increasing the scores of the lowest 25 percent of students, student participation and results of the end of course exams (EOCs).

Why are these factors sometimes at odds? Let’s suppose that a middle school Algebra I teacher has a mixed class of seventh- and eighth-graders. These students are already performing at a high level because students who tested out at levels 1 and 2 (below proficiency) are directed into intensive math classes and not allowed to take Algebra I. According to my colleague who teaches Algebra I, any middle schooler who falls behind or does not demonstrate high achievement is transferred back into intensive math. If most of this teacher’s students pass the EOC the first time around, they will have fulfilled a graduation requirement and earned points for their school.

He will not, however, automatically earn a high VAM score. The algorithm establishes a normal rate of growth for each student based on his or her past performance on the state standardized tests. For the teacher to get a high VAM score and be rated exceptional, his students must exceed the high level of performance they have demonstrated in the previous years. On the other hand, there are numerous reasons their scores might drop. They may have gone through a life-changing trauma such their parents divorcing or losing their jobs. They could have been sick on the day of the exam or had a fight with their mother before leaving for school. They could have broken up their boyfriend or girlfriend or had a death in the family.

Middle school intensive math teachers have more potential to earn a high VAM score because their students are already rated at the bottom. If the students are able to move up a level, then this will earn a high VAM score for the math teacher as well as points for the school. These students will eventually have to take Algebra I but probably not until ninth grade.

Another difficulty with VAM is all the teachers who teach a subject not directly tested on the Florida Standards Assessments. The state legislature has tried to get around this by mandating EOCs in every subject. However, many subjects will only be taught once, so there is no way to compare year-to-year. One way to solve this problem would be to give a pre-test the first week of school and then a final at the end of semester. This would really eat up instructional time, especially in a large school.

While the Student Success Act mandates that all districts create end of course exams at their own expense, the wording of the act allows districts to create a project or performance-based test for evaluating electives like computer science, visual arts, dance, PE, family and consumer science, and music. In this way the state can wash its collective hands of responsibility and pretend that it cannot be blamed for over-testing. Art can be assessed with a portfolio, as both IB and AP programs have done for years, but it is extremely expensive and out of the range of our district’s budget to do it for every art student every year. This means that to comply with the state directives, Palm Beach County may be forced to administer a multiple choice, objective exam, which will not test all the benchmarks and necessarily distort the way art is taught in Palm Beach County.

My VAM is currently based on an average of the VAMs of the reading teachers. I am blessed to work with a group of dedicated professionals who are phenomenal teachers. They come to work every day and teach their hearts out. However, in the above formula there is no calculation for the negative influences of poverty. I had the case of a student who broke her glasses about a month before the FCAT. Her mother did not have the money to buy her a new set, so she had to take the test without them. Many of my students are in foster homes or with grandparents. They may struggle with issues of self-esteem. Most studies say that English language learners need anywhere from three to five years to become academically fluent, but the federal government wants to count their scores after only one year. My students’ parents may be working two jobs to make end meet. In consequence, my students may be left on their own a lot and may have to take on the care of younger siblings.

Unfair as it is to base my evaluation on the work of others, it is even less fair to base it on a multiple choice test. I will have the dilemma of teaching art the way I have always done – as a creative skill that can be developed and a way for students to express in a unique way who they really are and teach them how to communicate their uniqueness to others. Or I can drill and kill them with objective knowledge that will make them hate art but make me look good on a standardized test.

I am mystified as to how our legislators, who on the whole are highly educated people, can think that VAM is a good way to evaluate teachers and that this will help improve education in Florida. Hopefully, in addition to the protests of teachers, parents will begin to realize how damaging this system is to Florida education, and either force their representatives to change or vote them out of office.

Martinez Catherine Shore Martinez is a National Board Certified teacher at Pahokee Middle Senior High School in Palm Beach County. Column courtesy of Context Florida.

Editor’s Note: This is an updated version of the original post. This version clarifies testing requirements for Algebra I students.

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