State Board of Education Testimony – July 9th, 2014

Good afternoon and thank you for the opportunity to testify this afternoon.

My name is Melissa Katz and I am 18 years old. I graduated from South Brunswick High School in 2013 and I am currently an Urban Elementary Education major at The College of New Jersey.

A little over a month ago, I posted a new profile photograph on Facebook, in which I was holding a sign that says “I AM MORE THAN A TE$T SCORE.” I also had some words written on my face and neck – [and in case you’re wondering, black eyeliner will do the trick]- like ‘partially effective,’ ‘PARCC,’ ‘SGP,’ ‘accountability,’ and ‘high-stakes,’ all which are considered to be ‘buzzwords’ in the education reform world. The point of using myself as a canvas was to express my concerns over being labeled by the system, both as a student and a future teacher. As a student, I was labeled by my NJASK score, and students will soon be labeled by their PARCC scores – especially in the high-stakes accountability environment of today’s education reform. Teachers are being labeled by these new, unproven ‘growth’ measures, but deeper research into the use of student growth measures, specifically in New Jersey with Student Growth Objectives (SGO’s) and Student Growth Percentiles (SGP’s), reveals the risks of attaching student growth to consequences such as evaluating teachers, principals, and local public schools, and even further, teacher employment.   

In New Jersey under AchieveNJ, teachers are evaluated on Student Growth Objectives (SGO’s) and Student Growth Percentiles (SGP’s). SGO’s are defined by the state as “academic goals for groups of students that are aligned to state standards and can be tracked using objective measures.” SGP’s are defined by the state as “measure[ing] growth for an individual student by comparing the change in his or her NJ ASK [soon to be PARCC] achievement from one year to the student’s “academic peers” (all other students in the state who had similar historical test results).” For teachers in tested grades and subjects, which currently include less than 20 percent of teachers, student achievement will make up 45 percent of a teacher’s evaluation: 15 percent student growth objectives and 30 percent student growth percentiles. For non-tested grades and subjects, which currently include more than 80 percent of teachers, student achievement will make up 15 percent of a teacher’s evaluation.
There are many issues surrounding the use of SGO’s and SGP’s in teacher evaluations, the largest being that there is no evidence to support their use. Bruce Baker of Rutgers University came to some of the following conclusions: (the entire report can be found here):

  1. “Student Growth Percentiles are not designed for inferring teacher influence on student outcomes;
  2. “Student Growth Percentiles do not control for various factors outside of the the teacher’s control;
  3. “Student Growth Percentiles are not backed by research on estimating teacher effectiveness. By contrast, research on SGP’s has shown them to be poor at isolating teacher influence;
  4. “Higher shares of low-income children and higher shares of minority children are each associated with lower average growth percentiles. This means that SGP’s – which fail on their face to take into account student background characteristics – fail statistically to remove the bias associated with these measures.
  5. “There are a magnitude of things that go on outside of the few hours a day where the teacher has contact with the child that influence any given child’s “gains” over the year, and those things that go on outside of school vary widely by children’s economic status.
  6. “Differences in student, classroom, and school level factors do relate to variations in both initial [student] performance levels and performance gains.
  7. Teacher’s aren’t all assigned similar groups of students with an evenly distributed mix of kids who started at similar points.”

FairTest, “The National Center for Fair & Open Testing (FairTest), works to end the misuses and flaws of standardized testing and to ensure that evaluation of students, teachers and schools is fair, open, valid and educationally beneficial.” The organization came to the follow conclusions:

Test-based teacher evaluation methods too often reflect the students teachers have, not how well they teach.Researchers calculate teacher influence on student test scores ranges from as little as 7.5% to 20% (Education Week, 2011). Out-of-school factors are the most important. As a result, test scores are greatly dependent on a student’s class, race, disability status and knowledge of English. Some value-added measures claim to take account of students’ backgrounds through statistical techniques. But the techniques do not adequately adjust for different populations or for the impact of things like grouping and tracking students. So the measures remain inaccurate (Darling-Hammond, et al., 2012; Baker, 2013).

Because of unreliable and erratic results, many teachers are incorrectly labeled “effective” or “ineffective.”On the surface, it makes sense to look at student gains, rather than students’ one-time scores. Measuring progress is important. However, VAM and growth measures are not accurate enough to use for important decisions. One study found that among teachers ranked in the top 20 percent of effectiveness in the first year, fewer than a third were in that top group the next year. Another third moved all the way down to the bottom 40 percent (Newton, et al., 2010). A RAND study found that using different math subtests resulted in large variations in teachers’ ratings, suggesting the measure, not the teacher, was the cause of the differences (Lockwood, et al., 2007). In some states currently using these methods, the results are no more accurate than flipping a coin (Baker, 2012).  

Going back to Bruce Baker for a moment, his in depth analysis of Student Growth Objectives (SGO’s) and Student Growth Percentiles (SGP’s) yielded the follow conclusions:

“Teachers in high poverty schools are dealing with children who have initially lower performance as defined by their test scores. Based upon this measure, they will have lower SGP’s, and now we begin the reform process of telling the narrative that these teachers are failing their students and must be replaced with new Teach for America grads who will be sure to magically turn things around and get those scores up!

“There are three ways the state plans to use SGP’s: rating schools for interventions, employment decisions, and evaluating teacher preparation institutions such as colleges and universities. In all of these cases, the use of SGP’s is inappropriate. SGP’s are not designed to determine a teacher’s or a school’s effect on test scores; again, they are descriptive, not causal, measures. Further, the bias patterns found in SGP’s provide a disincentive for teachers to teach in schools with large number of low-income students.”

Pursuing a policy of dismissing or ‘detenuring’ at a higher rate, teachers in high poverty schools because of their lower growth percentiles, would be misguided. Doing so would create more instability and disruption in settings already disadvantaged, and may significantly reduce the likelihood that these schools could then recruit “better” teachers as replacements.

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Future teachers are going to be discouraged from wanting to enter urban districts, where strong, dedicated, and committed teachers are most needed. All of these new reforms – most specifically new teacher evaluation systems focused heavily on ‘student growth’ and the over-reliance on high-stakes standardized testing – are pushing away good, future teachers who are yet to even step foot in a classroom.

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again – in the education reform world, if it isn’t quantifiable, it isn’t important. But in the real world, it’s those exact characteristics that aren’t quantifiable which are truly important – the characteristics that make each student individual, creative, and passionate.

Why would a young, aspiring teacher voluntarily put themselves in a situation where they will be judged based on factors that they do not control, and have that judgment decide whether or not they can keep their job and livelihood?

I don’t know the answer to that. But I do know that telling future teachers not to go into teaching, or to change their major away from urban education studies, is not the answer.

Sadly, the relationships that teachers develop with their students mean nothing in this day and age of reform accountability. What about those endless hours that teachers spend grading papers, designing projects, and perfecting that lesson plan so that their students can reach their full potential and blossom? Well, that can’t be measured, so administrators, districts, and states don’t care about that (not to suggest that all admins and school districts support these reforms – many times they are tied by the state mandates).

But the beautiful thing is that one group of people do still care about all of those “unmeasurable” aspects of education – teachers.

Teachers know that you can’t measure the joy and pride a student feels when they finally figure out that math problem they always struggled with. Teachers know that you can’t measure the feeling of self-confidence and self-worth a student experiences when they nail that presentation they worked so hard on by overcoming their fears of being in front of a class. Teachers know that you can’t measure the bond between students and teachers, both individually and as a class, because for many students in urban districts school is the one safe place where they know they will be loved and supported. As Nicholas Ferroni, educator and author, best states: “Students who are loved at home, come to school to learn, and students who aren’t, come to school to be loved.”

Unfortunately, nothing I am presenting here hasn’t been presented before. Even more unfortunate, people who have the power to make change – those at the state level specifically – are choosing to ignore this evidence and move forward with unproven, untested reforms in hopes that hey, maybe it’ll all work out. But the most effective and widespread change happens from the bottom up, so we must continue to educate one another, which in turn will only empower and strengthen the grassroots movement and build momentum through truth to counter the reforms that are being implemented in an untested, unproven, and undemocratic way.  

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