Passing Muster Fails Muster? (An Evaluation of Evaluating Evaluation Systems)

The Brookings Institution has now released their web based version of Passing Muster including a nifty calculation tool for rating teacher evaluation systems. Unfortunately, in my view, this rating system fails muster in at least two major ways.

First, the authors explain their (lack of) preferences for specific types of evaluation systems as follows:

“Our proposal for a system to identify highly-effective teachers is agnostic about the relative weight of test-based measures vs. other components in a teacher evaluation system.  It requires only that the system include a spread of verifiable and comparable teacher evaluations, be sufficiently reliable and valid to identify persistently superior teachers, and incorporate student achievement on standardized assessments as at least some portion of the evaluation system for teachers in those grades and subjects in which all students are tested.”

That is, a district’s evaluation system can consider student test scores to whatever extent they want, in balance with other approaches to teacher evaluation.  The logic here is a bit contorted from the start. The authors explain what they believe are necessary components of the system, but then claim to be agnostic on how those components are weighted.

But, if you’re not agnostic on the components, then saying you’re agnostic on the weights is not particularly soothing.

Clearly, they are not agnostic on the components or their weight, because the system goes on to evaluate the validity of each and every component based on the extent to which that component correlates with the subsequent year value-added measure.  This is rather like saying, we remain agnostic on whether you focus on reading or math this year, but we are going to evaluate your effectiveness by testing you on math. Or more precisely, we remain agnostic on whether you emphasize conceptual understanding and creative thinking this year, but we are going to evaluate your effectiveness on a pencil and paper, bubble test of specific mathematics competencies and vocabulary and grammar.

Second, while hanging ratings of evaluation systems entirely on their correlation with “next year’s value added,” the authors choose to again remain agnostic on the specifics for estimating the value-added effectiveness measures. That is, as I’ve blogged in the past, the authors express a strong preference that the value added measures be highly correlated from year to year, but remain agnostic as to whether those measures are actually valid, or instead are highly correlated mainly because the measures contain significant consistent bias – bias which disadvantages specific teachers in specific schools – and doe so year after year after year!

Here are the steps for evaluating a teacher evaluation system as laid out in Passing Muster:

Step 1: Target Percentile of True Value Added

Step 2: Constant factor (tolerance)

Step 3: Correlation of teacher level total evaluation score in current year, with next year value added

Step 4: Correlation of non-value added components with next year’s value added

Step 5: Correlation of this year’s value added with next year’s value added

Step 6: Number of teachers subject to the same evaluation system used to calculate correlation in step 3 ( a correlation with next year’s value added!)

Step 7: Number of current teachers subject to only the non-value added system

In researchy terms, their system is all reliability and no validity (or, at least, inferring the latter from the former).

But, rather than simply having each district evaluate its own evaluation system by correlating its current year ratings with next year’s value-added, the Brookings report suggests that states should evaluate district teacher evaluation systems by measuring the extent that district teacher evaluations correlate with a state standardized value-added metric for the following year.

But again, the authors remain agnostic on how that model should/might be estimated, favoring that the state level model be “consistent” year to year, rather than accurate. After all, how could districts consistently measure the quality of their evaluation systems if the state external benchmark against which they are evaluated was not consistent?

As a result, where a state chooses to adopt a consistently biased statewide standardized value-added model, and use that model to evaluate district teacher evaluation systems, the state in effect backs districts into adopting consistently biased year-to-year teacher evaluations… that have the same consistent biases as the state model.

The report does suggest that in the future, there might be other appropriate external benchmarks, but that:

“Currently value-added measures are, in most states, the only one of these measures that is available across districts and standardized.  As discussed above, value-added scores based on state administered end-of-year or end-of-course assessments are not perfect measures of teaching effectiveness, but they do have some face validity and are widely available.”

That is, value-added measures  – however well or poorly estimated – should be the benchmark for whether a teacher evaluation system is a good one, simply because they are available and we think, in some cases, that they may provide meaningful information (though even that remains disputable- to quote Jesse Rothstein’s review of the Gates/Kane Measures of  Effective Teaching study: “In particular, the correlations between value-added scores on state and alternative assessments are so small that they cast serious doubt on the entire value-added enterprise.” See:

I might find some humor in all of this strange logic and circular reasoning if the policy implications weren’t so serious.

Published by schoolfinance101

Bruce Baker is an Professor in the Graduate School of Education at Rutgers, The State University of New Jersey. From 1997 to 2008 he was a professor at the University of Kansas in Lawrence, KS. He is lead author with Preston Green (Penn State University) and Craig Richards (Teachers College, Columbia University) of Financing Education Systems, a graduate level textbook on school finance policy published by Merrill/Prentice-Hall. Professor Baker has written a multitude of peer reviewed research articles on state school finance policy, teacher labor markets, school leadership labor markets and higher education finance and policy. His recent work has focused on measuring cost variations associated with schooling contexts and student population characteristics, including ways to better design state school finance policies and local district allocation formulas (including Weighted Student Funding) for better meeting the needs of students. Baker, along with Preston Green of Penn State University are co-authors of the chapter on Conceptions of Equity in the recently released Handbook of Research Education Finance and Policy, and co-authors of the chapter on the Politics of Education Finance in the Handbook of Education Politics and Policy and co-authors of the chapter on School Finance in the Handbook of Education Policy of the American Educational Research Association. Professor Baker has also consulted for state legislatures, boards of education and other organizations on education policy and school finance issues and has testified in state school finance litigation in Kansas, Missouri and Arizona. He is a member of the Think Tank Review Panel, a group of academic researchers who conduct technical reviews of publicly released think tank reports on education policy issues.

3 thoughts on “Passing Muster Fails Muster? (An Evaluation of Evaluating Evaluation Systems)

  1. It is the only metric we have therefore it is valid.

    …The Circular Bandwagon Theory appears to be very popular with the no-evidence Reform Movement.

    1. The awkward issue here is that this brief and calculator are prepared by a truly exceptional group of scholars, and not just reformy pundits. It strikes me that we technocrats have started to fall for our own contorted logic… that the available metric is the true measure… and the quality of all else can only be evaluated against that measure. We’ve become myopic in our analysis, and we’ve forgotten all of the technical caveats of our own work, simply assuming the technical caveats of any/all alternatives to be far greater.

      Beyond all of that, I fear that technicians working within the political arena are deferring judgment on important technical concerns which have real ethical implications. When a technician knows that one choice is better (or worse) than another, one measure or model better than another, and that these technical choices affect real lives, the technician should – MUST – be up front/honest about these preferences.

  2. I’ll have to find time somewhere down the line to go to the original report, but I appreciate your review – as always. I appreciate your frank assessment of how “contorted logic” is permeating the technical side of the debate where it concerns the work of individual teachers. Didn’t James Popham conclude that ultimately the professional judgment of peers would be the best way to evaluate individual teachers? To rely on tests and value-added measures in any valid scientific sense, it seems to me you have to control for more factors than you can even identify, let alone measure. Then, you have to assume that certain effects are consistent across time, and across classrooms, teachers, and students. Then, you have to assume certain consistencies in the tests and testing conditions… it’s worse than a house of cards. I do not have a problem with the use of some standardized tests to look at systems. For example, my district changed math programs a couple years ago; when we’re talking about hundreds of teachers and thousands of students, I think standardized math tests might give us some useful information about the results. I do not think we need to test every student on every test every year, as long as we safeguard against manipulating who takes what test when. If the stakes are lowered so that the uses of the test are more reasonable, I think we’d see Campbell’s Law in reverse somewhat – less tampering with the system when there’s less to fear. Teachers do not need that standardized test data. I recall reading about a study (Cizek 2007) that reported that individual student test results had no instructional value anyways (more precisely, subtests of discrete skills contained so few items that no valid interpretations of the results could be made).

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