Standards prove cruel

Published 10:11 am Wednesday, April 30, 2014

It used to be common sense that the earth was flat. Then it was common sense that the earth was the center of the universe.

Now it’s common sense that you can use a student’s test scores to measure a teacher’s effectiveness. But that idea, called the “Value-Added Method” or VAM, came crashing to earth recently when Washington state became the first state to lose a No Child Left Behind (NCLB) waiver — and the money that goes along with it — because it could not come up with a way to use test scores to judge teachers.

The reason Washington state couldn’t do this — bear with me, this gets complicated — is because it can’t be done. Wait. I guess that wasn’t complicated. This month, the American Statistical Association released a statement about how VAM is junk science, it doesn’t measure what you think it does, and offers no useful feedback. Other than that, it’s a great idea.

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But one statistician’s snake oil is a policy zealot’s common sense. Education reformers have rushed this product into the marketplace. And just as you can’t prove the world is flat by sailing over the horizon, applying junk science to education policy has yielded predictable results.

Under VAM, ratings for individual teachers fluctuate so wildly that a teacher who earns an “effective” label one year has a 25 -50 percent chance of being tagged as ineffective the next.

A teacher in Florida, long a hotbed for wrong-footed education reforms, found that she was being evaluated on the test scores of students she never taught in subjects she didn’t teach. Michelle Rhee was so eager to implement this idea as DC chancellor that schools used test scores to rate custodians. This would be a lot funnier if your tax dollars weren’t paying for it.

Education reformers remain convinced the theory works, and because congress can’t reauthorize the Elementary and Secondary Education Act we’re stuck with NCLB, giving the Obama administration leverage. Under NCLB, every child must be proficient this year.

This is impossible, so states have to seek waivers from Education Sec. Arne Duncan, who insists that VAM be a condition of any federal relief.

All of a sudden, states are realizing that the bugs might be a feature. Last summer, Gov. Bill Haslam’s administration got the Tennessee Board of Education to adopt a policy linking test scores to renewing or denying teachers’ licenses, angering both the Tennessee Education Association and state legislators.

Last week the Republican-dominated legislature passed a bill to reverse course. Haslam signed it, the state teachers union celebrated, and dogs widened their dating options to include cats.

Tennessee’s move came a day after the U.S. Dept. of Education yanked Washington state’s NCLB waiver, a move the state’s Democratic governor called “disappointing, but not unexpected.” Now the state will lose $38 million in federal funds intended to help educate poor children, all because the governor and legislature could not find a way to do the impossible.

It was possible for centuries to prove that the earth was flat and later that it was the center of the universe. It was just common sense. It might be years before policymakers realize they are demanding the equivalent of making children fly with fairy dust and happy thoughts. The data will tell us what we insist upon seeing if we just close our eyes and believe.

I don’t blame anyone for not wanting to acknowledge what we’ve done. NCLB was created to leave no poor or minority child behind, but it created an impossible standard. Sec. Duncan is only granting relief from those impossible standards by requiring states to meet a different impossibility.

Doing this requires us to judge teachers with shaky data, sometimes from students they never had in subjects they never taught. Sometimes, they’re not even teachers.

And if somehow states fail to meet the impossible standards of this policy intended to help the poor, the government takes away the money they would use to help the poor.

That’s not common sense. That’s just cruel.


Jason Stanford is a Democratic consultant who writes columns for the Austin American-Statesman and MSNBC. He can be reached at and on Twitter @JasStanford.