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The Two Faces of Growth Models?

When comparing the growth of a student from last year's test to the one they took this year (and keeping the same cut points) is like taking their time from running the mile on a rubberized track last year and expecting them to run the same time on a steeplechase track with a few water pits thrown in for a mile and a ¼ this year.

About five years ago I was a member of a team of administrators who went through a training to understand the Value-Added Model. Although one of the days was during a snowstorm bad enough to close schools in the region, we learned about the value of the growth model. I like data when it is used correctly and believe it can provide us great insight into our practices. My friend Jonathan Cohen says, "Data should be used as a flashlight and not as a hammer."

During those days of training I learned about how we can look at a student's growth. As an elementary school principal and former teacher, I much more appreciate the growth a child makes over achievement. Even in sport's analogies, although I loved to run and do well in races, I much preferred being able to run further distances and building my weekly mileage. Growth makes sense and it's something that most educators would agree with.

Unfortunately, some states are looking at growth another way, and it is a much more deceiving way of looking at it. All educators between 4th - 8th grades received their ratings based on student high stakes testing results. Although the ratings are only 20% of a teacher and administrator's overall evaluation (many argue that 20% is minimal), they can have damaging effects on the educator's overall score (High Stakes Testing is ONLY 20% of a Teacher's Evaluation).

What Does Growth Mean?
In New York State highly effective, effective, developing and independent (HEDI) are based on a Bell Curve. A teacher with a ranking of 0-4 is ineffective, 5-8 is developing, 9-17 is effective and 18-20 is highly effective. A teacher's ranking is not based on how students achieved (1,2,3 or 4) on the high stakes test, but how much they grew from last year's test to this year. One of the issues is that the tests are not accurately aligned, which means they are not equal measures.

In New York State, the testing was longer, both in the number of questions and the duration. There were 7 more questions for third grade ELA, 4 more for fourth grade and 12 more for fifth grade. Students had three days of testing in ELA for 90 minutes per day (up to 3 hours for special education students) and a week later they had 3 days of math. Those tests all contained a few field test questions which tell the test makers whether a question is too easy, too hard or just right.

Carol Burris states, "This year, New York State fourth graders, who are nine or ten years old, were subject to 675 minutes (over 11 hours) of state testing. And this did not include test prep and field testing" (Washington Post). When comparing the growth of a student from last year's test to the one they took this year (and keeping the same cut points) is like taking their time from running the mile on a rubberized track last year and expecting them to run the same time on a steeplechase track with a few water pits thrown in for a mile and a ¼ this year.

In addition to those changes in high stakes testing, students are not being compared to just how they did the previous year, they are being compared to how their peers grew as well. If Johnny made a year's growth in a year's time it would be acceptable growth. Unfortunately, Johnny made a year's growth in a year's time (on longer tests) but Susie and Trish made more than a year's growth in a year's time so Johnny's scale score is lower and therefore, his teacher's overall score just went down. There are actual examples of a student who went from a 3 to a 4 but didn't make a year's growth.

In the End
Educators want students to make growth from year to year. It's one of the reasons that they're in school. If they're not making that type of growth something is wrong and interventions need to be in place. Schools need to make sure that students are making as much growth as possible each year. Schools can do that by using formative and summative assessments. However, the summative assessments have to be properly aligned; something that state tests are not.

Evaluations are an important part of a teacher or administrators professional growth. Unfortunately, it feels as though some states are using moving targets and their numbers leave many educators baffled. In addition, there is a great deal of secrecy. Teachers are not allowed to see the tests after they are completed and the student information that garnered all of these results are not made public to the teacher. All of this time to figure out new accountability (which seems to change from year to year) takes the focus off the real reason we teach, which is our students.


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The opinions expressed in Finding Common Ground are strictly those of the author and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.

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