Stop Adding Value and Save the Teaching Profession

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I would ordinarily never do this, but please allow me to toot my own horn for a second (and I promise I’m going somewhere with it). The Tennessee Department of Education (TDOE) has hired me three times during the summer to be a Content Coach and train other teachers over high school English standards and preparing students for the state test. TDOE has also hired me two additional times to help develop and score the state test. Last year, I was invited to The White House and attended the national teacher of the year ceremony as one of America’s Most Distinguished Educators. I am the president of the Coffee County Education Association and I work to elevate teacher voice and improve the profession from that role. Finally, before TNReady came along, the state considered me to be a Level 5 teacher. Every year, teachers at the end of the year are evaluated on a scale from 1-5. If they have students who will take TNReady, then that score is based on a combination of classroom observations, school-wide data, and their students’ test scores. For the past six years, I have been considered among the top educators in the state according to their own metrics.

What’s the point me listing my accomplishments? Since TNReady became the new achievement test, the state has considered me to be a Level 1 teacher in terms of student growth. Thanks to the state legislature, this low score hasn’t actually counted as part of my official evaluation the past two years, but that doesn’t make it any less concerning. I’m working just as hard, if not harder, than before. I know how to get students prepared for the newer, more difficult TNReady exam (I’ve trained other teachers on this, after all). There are some logical reasons for my student growth score being at a Level 1. Here are some contributing factors:

Two years ago, just before my students sat down to take TNReady for the first time, Dr. Candice McQueen, Tennessee’s Secretary of Education, announced that the scores would not count at the high school level for students or teachers because the test was not operating correctly on the computer. Therefore, my students mostly did not try very hard, and I couldn’t blame them. That certainly explains the first low score that I received.

Last year’s test went more smoothly from an administrative standpoint, meaning that it properly worked on the computer. It appeared as if my students tried harder, but many still finished long before the allotted time limit. This probably had something to do with the test failing the year before. Most of my students were skeptical when I told them that their performance on the test was going to factor into their report card grades. As it turned out, TDOE did not get the scores back to school districts before report cards were printed, and my students were correct in their skepticism.

After two years of TNReady, it still hasn’t counted for my students. Going into year three, I will once again tell them with a hopeful, straight face that it will count as part of their report card grades and implore them to try their best. I quietly wonder what reason they have to believe me, given recent history. While TNReady may or may not end up counting for my students, it does count for teachers. Tenure, staffing, and differentiated pay (a.k.a. bonuses) are tied to this. It also counts for school buildings and school districts. Recently, the Tennessee Legislature passed a ridiculous law stating that schools will be graded on an A-F system, and these inaccurate test scores will factor into this.

My Level 1 rating is insulting and infuriating, and I’m not alone in feeling that way. I know other teachers who have expressed to me their exasperation with their low ratings--to the point of wanting to leave the profession. Clearly, something needs to be done. TDOE’s issues with TNReady is part of the problem, and I hope that they will remedy those soon. The other part of this problem is how teacher’s evaluation scores are determined. It’s beyond time for this state to stop using the Tennessee Value-Added Assessment System (TVAAS).

In a nutshell, TVAAS is a complicated mathematical formula that examines a student’s prior test scores in a core subject (i.e. math, English, science, social studies) and then somehow predicts how well the student will do on the next test. If the student does better than expected, the teacher is credited for creating growth; conversely, if the student performs at or below the state’s projection, then teacher takes a hit on his or her evaluation. I could argue the ridiculousness of using standardized tests to measure student growth and, furthermore, using that information to determine the teacher’s impact on that growth; however, there is a more fundamental problem that needs to be addressed: TNReady’s recent debacles have taken the value out of TVAAS and have rendered it completely invalid.

Due to the TNReady testing failures, most elementary and middle schools have gone two years, and high schools one year, without any student data. Missing one to two years of data makes it impossible to accurately predict a teacher’s impact on student growth. Additionally, TNReady is a completely different type of test than what students were forced to take before. According to the Tennessee Education Association (TEA) and “A research study published in the Journal of Educational Measurement (2007) noted that different types of tests yield different value-added results. Thus, making a valid comparison between the two is impossible.”

Making matters worse, teachers in different grades and subject areas are treated differently when it comes to TVAAS results. That’s not okay. A study published in the Teachers’ College Record in 2015 focused on Tennessee and noted that middle school teachers tend to receive lower TVAAS scores than their high school counterparts, and middle school ELA teachers were more likely to receive low TVAAS rankings than their peers who teach math. TDOE’s own report on educator effectiveness revealed the same finding--middle school teachers tend to get lower scores, and ELA teachers are often scored lower than math teachers.

If that’s not bad enough, two new issues have come to light with the most recent round of testing. The Tennessean recently reported that “about 9,400 TNReady tests across the state were scored incorrectly. The scoring issue impacted about 70 schools in 33 districts. Approximately 1,700 of the total incorrect tests scores, once corrected, changed what scoring category that test fell into, possibly affecting whether a student passed the test.”  Additionally, according to “Tennessee’s testing problems continue. This time the issue is missing students. Students’ test scores are used to evaluate teachers, and the failure of a data processing vendor to include scores for thousands of students may have skewed results for some teachers. The error affects 1,700 teachers statewide, or about 9 percent of the 19,000 Tennessee teachers who receive scores. About 900 of those teachers had five or more students missing from their score, which could change their result.”

Now is the time to talk about moving forward without TVAAS. Educators don’t mind accountability, but they deserve a measure that is fair and transparent. TVAAS is neither. The Tennessee Legislature needs to pass a bill this upcoming session banning the use of value-added measures in a teacher’s evaluation. Teaching is stressful enough. There’s already a statewide teacher shortage, and being evaluated by inaccurate calculus is driving good teachers away. It is time to stand on the side of teachers by standing up to the value-added testocracy that is ruining the teaching profession.