How the Value-Added Model sucks
One way people’s trust of mathematics is being abused by crappy models is through the Value-Added Model, or VAM, which is actually a congregation of models introduced nationally to attempt to assess teachers and schools and their influence on the students.
I have a lot to say about the context in which we decide to apply a mathematical model to something like this, but today I’m planning to restrict myself to complaints about the actual model. Some of these complaints are general but some of them are specific to the way the one in New York is set up (still a very large example).
The general idea of a VAM is that teachers are rewarded for bringing up their students’ test scores more than expected, given a bunch of context variables (like their poverty and last year’s test scores).
The very first question one should ask is, how good is the underlying test the kids are taking? This is famously a noisy answer, depending on how much sleep and food the kids got that day, and, with respect to the content, depends more on memory than on deep knowledge. Another way of saying this is that, if a student does a mediocre job on the test, it could be because they are learning badly at their school, or that they didn’t eat breakfast, or it could be that the teachers they have are focusing more on other things like understanding the reasons for the scientific method and creating college-prepared students by focusing on skills of inquiry rather than memorization.
This brings us to the next problem with VAM, which is a general problem with test-score cultures, namely that it is possible to teach to the test, which is to say it’s possible for teachers to chuck out their curriculums and focus their efforts on the students doing well on the test (which in middle school would mean teaching only math and English). This may be an improvement for some classrooms but in general is not.
People’s misunderstanding of this point gets to the underlying problem of skepticism of our teachers’ abilities and goals- can you imagine if, at your job, you were mistrusted so much that everyone thought it would be better if you were just given a series of purely rote tasks to do instead of using your knowledge of how things should be explained or introduced or how people learn? It’s a fact that teachers and schools that don’t teach to the test are being punished for this under the VAM system. And it’s also a fact that really good, smart teachers who would rather be able to use their pedagogical chops in an environment where they are being respected leave public schools to get away from this culture.
Another problem with the New York VAM is the way tenure is set up. The system of tenure is complex in its own right, and I personally have issues with it (and with the system of tenure in general), but in any case here’s the way it works now. New teachers are technically given three years to create a portfolio for tenure- but the VAM results of the third year don’t come back in time, which means the superintendent looking at a given person’s tenure folder only sees two years of scores, and one of them is the first year, where the person was completely inexperienced.
The reason this matters is that, depending on the population of kids that new teacher was dealing with, more or less of the year could have been spent learning how to manage a classroom. This is an effect that overall could be corrected for by a model but there’s no reason to believe was. In other words, the overall effect of teaching to kids who are difficult to manage in a classroom could be incorporated into a model but the steep learning curve of someone’s first year would be much harder to incorporate. Indeed I looked at the VAM technical white paper and didn’t see anything like that (although since the paper was written for the goal of obfuscation that doesn’t prove anything).
For a middle school teacher, the fact that they have only two years of test scores (and one year of experienced scores) going into a tenure decision really matters. Technically the breakdown of weights for their overall performance is supposed to be 20% VAM, 20% school-wide assessment, and 60% “subjective” performance evaluation, as in people coming to their classroom and taking notes. However, the superintendent in charge of looking at the folders has about 300 folders to look at in 2 weeks (an estimate), and it’s much easier to look at test scores than to read pages upon pages of written assessment. So the effective weighting scheme is measurably different, although hard to quantify.
One other unwritten rule: if the school the teacher is at gets a bad grade, then that teacher’s chances of tenure can be zero, even if their assessment is otherwise good. This is more of a political thing than anything else, in that Bloomberg doesn’t want to say that a “bad” school had a bunch of tenures go through. But it means that the 20/20/60 breakdown is false in a second way, and it also means that the “school grade” isn’t an independent assessment of the teachers’ grades- and the teachers get double punished for teaching at a school that has a bad grade.
That brings me to the way schools are graded. Believe it or not the VAM employs a binning system when they correct for poverty, which is measured in terms of the percentage of the student population that gets free school lunches. The bins are typically small ranges of percentages, say 20-25%, but the highest bin is something like 45% and higher. This means that a school with 90% of kids getting free school lunch is expected to perform on tests similarly to a school with half that many kids with unstable and distracting home lives. This penalizes the schools with the poorest populations, and as we saw above penalized the teachers at those schools, by punishing them for when the school gets a bad grade. It’s my opinion that there should never be binning in a serious model, for reasons just like this. There should always be a continuous function that is fit to the data for the sake of “correcting” for a given issue.
Moreover, as a philosophical issue, these are the very schools that the whole testing system was created to help (does anyone remember that testing was originally set up to help identify kids who struggle in order to help them?), but instead we see constant stress on their teachers, failed tenure bids, and the resulting turnover in staff is exactly the opposite of helping.
This brings me to a crucial complaint about VAM and the testing culture, namely that the emphasis put on these tests, which we’ve seen is noisy at best, reduces the quality of life for the teachers and the schools and the students to such an extent that there is no value added by the value added model!
If you need more evidence of this please read this article, which describes the rampant cheating on test in Atlanta, Georgia and which is in my opinion a natural consequence of the stress that tests and VAM put on school systems.
One last thing- a political one. There is idiosyncratic evidence that near elections, students magically do better on tests so that candidates can talk about how great their schools are. With that kind of extra variance added to the system, how can teachers and school be expected to reasonably prepare their curriculums?
Next steps: on top of the above complaints, I’d say the worst part of the VAM is actually that nobody really understands it. It’s not open source so nobody can see how the scores are created, and the training data is also not available, so nobody can argue with the robustness of the model either. It’s not even clear what a measurement of success is, and whether anyone is testing the model for success. And yet the scores are given out each year, with politicians adding their final bias, and teachers and schools are expected to live under this nearly random system that nobody comprehends. Things can and should be better than this. I will talk in another blog post about how they should be improved.