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Posted at 6:30 AM ET, 10/ 6/2010

Ravitch: Why teachers should never be rated by test scores

By Valerie Strauss

This was written by education historian Diane Ravitch on her Bridging Differences blog, which she co-authors with Deborah Meier on the Education Week website.

Ravitch and Meier exchange letters about what matters most in education. Ravitch, a research professor at New York University, is the author of the bestselling “The Death and Life of the Great American School System,” an important critique of the flaws in the modern school reform movement.

Dear Deborah,
You asked what keeps me running, which I assume means how I find the energy to stay on the road week after week, speaking to teachers, parents, school board members, and concerned citizens. These days, I am running because of an inner rage at the attacks on teachers and public education. I see one of our most important public institutions under siege by people who want to privatize it, turn it into profit centers, and treat children as data points on a chart. This is wrong, and it will end badly. Critics say I defend the status quo, but nothing could be further from the truth. The status quo is awful, but the demonizing of teachers and the vilification of public education are even worse.

Last week, I was in Los Angeles. I spoke to L.A. teachers, who were shamed by the Los Angeles Times' disgraceful release of test-score data and ratings of 6,000 elementary teachers as more or less effective. I had previously believed that such ratings (value-added assessment) might be used cautiously by supervisors as one of multiple measures to evaluate teacher performance.

The L.A. Times persuaded me that the numerical scores—with all their caveats and flaws—would drown out every other measure. And, in fact, the L.A. Times database contained only one measure, based on test scores.

And so I concluded that value-added assessment should not be used at all. Never. It has a wide margin of error. It is unstable. A teacher who is highly effective one year may get a different rating the next year depending on which students are assigned to his or her class. Ratings may differ if the tests differ. To the extent it is used, it will narrow the curriculum and promote teaching to tests. Teachers will be mislabeled and stigmatized. Many factors that influence student scores will not be counted at all.

The latest review of value-added assessment was written by New York University economist Sean Corcoran. He examines value-added assessment in Houston and New York City. He describes a margin of error so large that a teacher at the 43rd percentile (average) might actually be at the 15th percentile (below average) or the 71st percentile (above average). What is the value of such a measure? Why should it be used at all? Please read this important and well-written study.

While I was in Los Angeles, a teacher committed suicide. Rigoberto Ruelas, 39, had taught 5th graders for 14 years. He was known as unusually dedicated and caring; he worked in a gang-ridden, impoverished neighborhood. Most students in his school were English-language learners. Friends and family said he was depressed by the poor rating he received in the L.A. Times. No one will ever know what caused him to despair and take his own life. Colleagues and former students wrote beautiful tributes to him. They thought he was a wonderful teacher.

It's worth noting, however, that Los Angeles Deputy Schools Superintendent John Deasy said that Mr. Ruelas had a "great performance review" from his supervisors, but Mr. Deasy couldn't release the personnel records because they are confidential. So only the test scores were released to the media, not the laudatory reviews by professionals who observed his work.

Now I hear that more districts, prodded on by U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan and Race to the Top principles, want to release value-added rankings. More teachers will learn that they are sub-par or superior when judged by flawed, dubious, inaccurate measures.

How many other ways can we discover to ruin teachers' reputations and encourage teachers to abandon their profession? Why isn't there a public outcry that such tactics undermine professionalism and the quality of education? When will we learn that we have turned education into a numbers racket, and we may lose the best teachers along with the worst?

In this week after NBC's one-sided slam against teachers, unions, and public education, I am furious. And it keeps me running.


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By Valerie Strauss  | October 6, 2010; 6:30 AM ET
Categories:  Diane Ravitch, Guest Bloggers, School turnarounds/reform, Standardized Tests, Teacher assessment, Teachers  | Tags:  diane ravitch, how to assess teache, l.a. times, l.a. times database, los angeles times, ravitch book, rigoberto ruelas, school reform, teacher and suicide, teacher assessment, teacher commits suicide, teacher database, teacher evaluation, teachers, test scores, value added  
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What will it take to get the attention of the White House and the current in-group?

I mean this. What will it take, and how can I help do it? Do we need a massive protest by parents? By teachers themselves? What?

It's the insanity that has me so angry--that an 8th grade student, a mainstreamed non-reader, begs her teacher, "Please, why can't you teach me to read?" The teacher is not allowed to pull these kids out for decoding instruction (because then they'd miss some grade level content of the mainstreaming class, which of course has gone beyond basics like decoding). Layers of the current insanity in just this one illustration.

Parents and the public don't know details like these. They don't know to protest.
What can I do to help?

Posted by: nebbel | October 6, 2010 7:39 AM | Report abuse

So what measure should we use to remove ineffective teachers? Let parents decide? Let principles pick? Poll the children? You say the status quo is awful, yet don't blame teachers or the system. Well I do blame some teachers, just as I blame some parents, some principles, and some students, but spreading the blame does not eliminate the need to remove ineffective teachers. And before someone throws out some gibberish like, "we all want good teachers in every classroom, but testing is not the way to get there," tell me how we remove ineffective teachers and I would welcome some examples. Because I don't think "we all" want to remove bad teachers. I think some actually don't believe such an entity exists.

Posted by: horacemann | October 6, 2010 10:03 AM | Report abuse


In case you missed it while riding around Massachusetts on horseback examining the state's schools, the leader of a school is your "pal" that's why the leader of the school is spelled p r i n c i PAL.

And I concur with your thesis that there are some bad teachers in our schools but that's only a minor part of the problem. The real problems are the homes and poverty many kids come from and the unwillingness of our society as a whole to address this issue because it might offend the PC police.

Posted by: phoss1 | October 6, 2010 10:22 AM | Report abuse

Ah, thank you for your proofreading services and for your concurrence on the existence of bad teachers. Sadly, the rest of your post simply perpetuates the myth that there's really nothing that can be done.

Posted by: horacemann | October 6, 2010 10:56 AM | Report abuse

phoss1's post didn't perpetuate any myth, it simply laid out the factors that contribute to the problem.

If anything, it implies that attention to all these factors are needed to solve the problem.

Posted by: efavorite | October 6, 2010 11:04 AM | Report abuse


Because there are poor teachers,and reliable methods to identify and remove them are too slow for you, you prefer a stupid method that identifies good teachers as bad and bad teachers as good, thus removing good teachers quickly, just so long as teachers get fired. Is that about it? And where do we find to "good" teachers to replace them? Brookings and ATF have suggested an incentive system to intice experienced, highly-qualified teachers with consistently strong yearly evaluations to teach in difficult schools. None of the "Reformer" have even addressed this idea. Do you prefer, as they do, that we replace the fired teachers with ignorant TFA interns?

If you want to see what works, look down I-95 to Richmond; a 90% poor, 90% minority public school system that outperforms Fairfax on the state SOL. Their success is based on polcies that are exactly the OPPOSITE of those you and the know-nothing, phony "reformers" propose.

Posted by: mcstowy | October 6, 2010 1:21 PM | Report abuse

That should be Brooking and AFT.

Posted by: mcstowy | October 6, 2010 1:41 PM | Report abuse

I don't disagree that there are multiple factors affecting student performance, yet that is not a reason to exempt teachers from blame. Again, it's not all teachers. And what are the "good and reliable" methods that remove bad teachers? It's great to have incentives for good teachers to teach in bad schools, but that has nothing to do with the need to remove ineffective teachers--or is that implied when a good teacher steps into such a school? While it's great that Richmond outperforms Fairfax on standardized tests, you've already condemned testing as a metric for teacher evaluation. So which is it?

Posted by: horacemann | October 6, 2010 4:16 PM | Report abuse

Standardized tests assess student learning, not teacher performance.

It seems like it is the same thing, but it isn't.

Some students come to kindergarten reading already. Some don't read until second grade. The teacher of both students can still be doing a good job or a poor job. The test score tells you where that child is in comparison to others in the same grade.

The score does not tell you if the child is younger or older than their peers at the same grade level, whether the child speaks English, whether the child has a disability or where the child was when he or she came in to the school.

The test is for the student, not the teacher.

Posted by: celestun100 | October 6, 2010 4:48 PM | Report abuse

Thank you again, Diane for your ongoing support and work.

Do you think you could talk Charlie Rose into running a series of round-table discussions with TEACHERS on the day-to-day
frustrations they face? And perhaps some meaningful visuals that show the public how crazy the education numbers game is? So far the pundits are showing mostly the would-be reformers and politicians. I thought I would be physically ill when I watched Larry King and Oprah with their entertainment pieces on education......and where were the teachers?

@nebbel: Your concern for some of the day-to-day nuttiness that thwarts teaching efforts comes across loud and clear. I feel as you do, frustrated and thinking that it is time for action. I am retired, but friends I know who are still teaching are very discouraged by the current trends. I keep waiting for there to be a national teacher's strike, but think that people are too afraid for their jobs to contemplate it.

Most discouraging is so much of the television and movie media grandstanding on education issues: where have they been all these years? Tragic inner city schools have been with us many years, and it has more to do with the environments than the teachers.

Posted by: PLMichaelsArtist-at-Large | October 6, 2010 5:21 PM | Report abuse

"Some students come to kindergarten reading already. Some don't read until second grade."

And in most schools, we put them in the same room with the same teacher and give them the same lessons. If the Red Cross taught swimming this way, there would be a lot of drownings in the class.

Perhaps another solution would be for reporters, politicians, etc., to actually take a series of standardized tests under the same conditions the students have to. Maybe then they would discover how distracting it is to sit next to a student with a bad cold, how many times you cannot "choose the correct answer" because you know more than the average student at that level (or more than the authors of the test think the average student at that level knows), or how many questions simply don't make sense. (Proofreading a test, I once had to diagram a sentence to decide what it asked.)

Posted by: sideswiththekids | October 7, 2010 10:38 AM | Report abuse

"While it's great that Richmond outperforms Fairfax on standardized tests, you've already condemned testing as a metric for teacher evaluation. So which is it?"

Posted by: horacemann

The two are not contradictory. Standardized tests are appropriate to evaluate student knowledge and skills, as they provide feedback on the student's achievement, (that's what they were designed for) but no indication of how that achievement was acquired. They are appropriate, accounting for variables in the macro sense, to compare outcomes at the school and school system level, because the sample is large and the variable can be accounted for. At the level of the individual teacher, the variable can overcome the intended measure. In addition, the focus on testing can skew the education process; it encourages cheating and teaching to the test. Perhaps the worst problem with the value-added system, however, is the suggestion that it can be made fairer to teachers if administrators ensure that each class has similar numbers of high, middle and low achieving students. That may be fair to the teachers, but it denies the student the teacher that is most effective for him or her. For example, a teacher might be especially effective for low achieving students, so the principal, knowing this, assigns the most difficult students to that teacher. The students make progress and begin to catch up to their peers, but still do not meet the standards for the test. That teacher is rated as "ineffective." Now the principal could assign the teacher fewer low achieving students, thus, allowing her to have a fair opportunity on the students' tests, but the students would be denied the most effective teacher for their needs. The emphasis is on the fairness of the test outcome to the teacher, rather than the best interest of the student. Is that what you're advocating?

Posted by: mcstowy | October 7, 2010 3:03 PM | Report abuse

I think the young men who wrote the article should be asked to teach in an inner city school for year. Then their students scores can be posted on the LA Times for everyone to see. You can also used the value added measures to the scores. Let's see how these gentlemen come out. Next should be an article discussing the value of their teaching based not on principal observation - but on their value added scores.

They need to go through what the 5th and 6th grade teachers they criticized go through.

Posted by: educationlover54 | October 7, 2010 9:45 PM | Report abuse

See instructional accountability and leaning with Dr. Duncan on this one but not for privatization or merit pay.I'm also concerned with the test and do agree it is unstable and teacher's should not be teaching to a test.Praxis included !An effective teacher can work with all groups of students in any environment with support and resources and show positive results with testing.Also, factors given for success would be a school building operationally solid allowing creativity to take place instructionally with the curriculum and team work.If so you'll show results ! The teacher doesn't even have to be politically under PL 107-110 NCLB highly qualified.Appreciate Mrs. Ravitch and think other points she makes are on the money and accurate.

Posted by: jbatman | October 10, 2010 7:31 PM | Report abuse

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