On my very first day with Memphis City Schools I was told that I would be teaching all but the 20 honors English Ten students at my school and their Gateway scores rested on me. I was informed that if all of those students did not pass the Gateway Language Arts exam then “we could be on the list.” I was not clear what “the list” actually was, but what was crystal clear was that my job hinged on those scores. Today, nine years later things are virtually the same, except that the stakes are higher and the tests are more rigorous, and for the past seven years I have taught all of the tenth or eleventh grade English students, not just a portion.
After that first year, I received my value-added data. Obviously I was no longer teaching those students and when I inquired what “no detectable difference” meant my principal said it was nothing to worry about since all of my students passed the test. It did bother me though. It bothered me that the data came a year later. It bothered me that no one offered any information to support the data or to help me change it in the future. The state said I had virtually no impact on those students when I knew I had worked tirelessly in after-school and Saturday school tutoring in order to support many children who were well below grade level when I received them in August.
This was not acceptable to me. I teach because I want to make a change and I made up my mind that at that point I was not going to be satisfied with students simply passing, but rather I wanted all students to receive an advanced score on the state- mandated tests. And you know what? The majority of my students did make advanced scores. The last time my students took the Gateway, only eight students were proficient while all others were advanced. The same can be said for my eleventh graders and their writing scores, but still the state sends me my value-added scores stating that I have “no detectable difference.”
I suppose many teachers would not admit to this type of information, but I am not ashamed because I now know how this data is calculated. I know that ultimately student scores across the state are averaged and then the value-added is determined based on average positive or negative gain throughout the state. I also know that “treating the output of a value-added analysis as an accurate indicator if a teacher’s relative contribution to student learning is equivalent to making a casual interpretation of a statistical estimate,” (Braun 3). I am not ashamed that the state says I have no change on my students because the statisticians are not in my classroom every day and they are not the ones making the phone calls home or seeing the faces of my students light up when they finally comprehend a difficult text. No, I am not ashamed because all teachers know that “student progress can also be influenced by the physical condition of the school and the resources available,” as well as, “parental support, motivation, study habits,” (Braun 3). What I am a little ashamed about is that I have learned to play the data game.
When I first started teaching, the only value-added data that teachers received were those numbers the following year that indicated a positive change, negative change, or no change. Today educators are flooded with value-added data “on student learning gains and individual student projection reports that signal whether a student is on track to perform at a proficient or advanced level on future assessments,” (Jerald 2). I understand that this information is beneficial in that it allows teachers to see where their strengths lie and where the work needs to be focused. I also believe that ultimately value-added models are used in order to help the education of our students.
What I am still unsure of is the use of these models and the data within them as a measure of teacher effectiveness, because these models also offer information that allows teachers to make strategic moves in order to produce what appears to be “significant growth.” This is what I meant when I referred to the “data game.” In order for teachers to receive a positive change result they only need to ensure that students within the lowest projected score band move to a significantly higher percentile. The same result will occur with students projected to receive a proficient score moving to the advanced score range.
As a teacher I want achievement for all of my students. I want them all to be successful and I believe that they all have the potential to accomplish the standards set for them. While I feel that this value-added bandwagon has some very good characteristics, I worry that it reduces my students and my craft to some easily packaged assumptions based on averages within a state whose school districts are vastly different than the one my students and I exist in. I also worry that using value added data in order to measure teacher effectiveness does not allow for the entire picture and creates less concern for the students and more concern for positive growth results which might not always be one in the same.
As I said, I am worried and unsure, but I also know that right now teachers have no choice. We can either jump on the bandwagon and play the game or, like the thousand great educators our profession loses yearly, jump off and find another path. I hope that more of us will stay on this path and ride out the changes because no matter what the state might say, I know that we do makes a difference.