Washington Post VAM-Based Teacher Firing Claim Might Cause Confusion

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In a recent Washington Post story about the latest warnings about the use of student test scores to rate teachers, reporter Emma Brown wrote that “A growing number of states have begun using value-added models, or VAMs, to judge and in some cases fire teachers.”

Is that true? Are a growing number of states using VAMs to judge and in some cases fire teachers? 

It’s one of those things that you hear talked about a lot — like kids throwing up due to test anxiety — but usually without any specific corroboration. There’s no specific citation given, and education reporters (like Presidential candidates) sometimes pass along what seems like conventional wisdom without realizing that it’s not accurate or isn’t known definitively.

Based on a quick ask-around, there seems to be little doubt that more states are using measures involving student test scores to rate and evaluate teachers — and little doubt that some teachers are being fired or forced to resign over evaluation systems (Denver, Nevada, and DC, I’m told) that include student test scores as part of the process. 

According to the NEA, there’s no list of teachers who’ve been fired based on VAM scores, though states using VAMs for “a substantial portion of teacher evaluations” include Kentucky, New York, Virginia and Texas. “There are currently lawsuits pending in both NY and Houston challenging such evaluations.” 

According to the AFT, teachers in places like DCPS are being terminated every year as a result of receiving either an “ineffective” rating or two consecutive “minimally effective” rating on their IMPACT evaluation.

However, they say “What we are not sure is how many of these teachers had value added scores as a component of the evaluation.” DCPS is going to follow up with more information about this but in the meantime says that VAM was not being used last year (or this year) during the Common Core testing transition. 

It’s important to remember that VAM systems generally haven’t identified tons more “ineffective” teachers than their observation-based predecessors, which has been a major disappointment to those who expected that to happen. And VAMs are being used as components in these systems and parts of principals’ decisions and due process hearings in other places, rather than as a single thumbs-up, thumbs-down kind of system.

Is anyone using a VAM score as a sole indicator leading to a teacher firing? Not that I have seen.

According to NCTQ’s Sandi Jacobs, “No state uses VAMs per se as the basis for teacher dismissal, but many states now link teacher evaluation ratings which include student growth measures to dismissal.” Click the link to see which states do what — though be warned that many states give districts discretion over how to implement and administer these systems.

It would probably have been better if the Washington Post story had qualified its broad-brush statement so that it was clear that teachers weren’t being fired based solely on student test scores. But not everyone likely read it that way.  Using VAM scores isn’t necessarily the same as relying on them. 

Related posts: Quick Response From Slate To VAM ErrorsConfused & Misleading Miami Herald Teacher Jobs Story

Alexander Russo

Alexander Russo is a freelance education writer who has created several long-running blogs such as the national news site This Week In Education, District 299 (about Chicago schools), and LA School Report. He can be reached on Twitter at @alexanderrusso, on Facebook, or directly at alexanderrusso@gmail.com.