I will protect your pensions. Nothing about your pension is going to change when I am governor. - Chris Christie, "An Open Letter to the Teachers of NJ" October, 2009

Tuesday, June 4, 2013

Debunking NJDOE's Propaganda on SGPs

I take no pleasure in calling a fellow teacher to account. I am sure that Elizabeth Morgan is an excellent educator, and I would never question her motives. But her op-ed in NJSpotlight, cheering on the use of Student Growth Percentiles (SGPs) and Student Growth Objectives (SGOs), comes across to me as little more than propaganda, straight from the NJDOE.

Morgan serves on the Evaluation Pilot Advisory Committee (EPAC), the group charged with advising NJDOE on the new teacher evaluation system, AchieveNJ. I know some of the other members of this committee personally; they are excellent educators and I'm sure they have the best of intentions. But the endorsement of good people is not reason enough to dismiss the very serious problems I and others have outlined with AchieveNJ.

Teachers, administrators, parents, and students in New Jersey have to understand that this new teacher evaluation program has serious flaws that have not been acknowledged, let alone addressed. To that end - and I hope the good people on the EPAC panel, including Morgan, understand the spirit in which I offer this criticism - let me address some critical points in Morgan's op-ed:
One of the measures of AchieveNJ, the proposed system -- and the one that has received the most press attention -- is the Student Growth Percentile (SGP) score. The SGP is a measure of how a teacher’s students have grown on the New Jersey Assessment of Skills and Knowledge (NJ ASK) in comparison to those statewide who are most like them academically. As an eighth-grade language arts teacher, I am one of those teachers who will receive an SGP rating. Personally, I am very curious to see my score, and I know that it is going to give me valuable data about the students I teach and my impact on their learning. 
(I'm going to forgo a lot of links in this post, because everything you need to know is here. And if that's a little too technical for you, don't worry - read this.)

It would be one thing if the SGP component of AchieveNJ was solely about letting a teacher "see her score"; it is not. The SGP measure is a mandatory, rigidly applied portion of the evaluation for a small subset of teachers (4-8 grade math and language arts). The median SGP (mSGP) Morgan and her fellow teachers receive has a high-stakes consequence attached to it; it is not merely information to help instruction. How could it be? After all, Morgan's students will already be in high school when she gets their SGPs.

The use of SGPs is almost entirely for accountability, not instructional improvement. The NJDOE has gone on for a while now about how valuable it will be for a teacher or administrator to see how a child "grows" in comparison to his or her "peers." But because SGPs are descriptive and do not even attempt to find the cause for growth, the value of them as instructional assessments has been way overhyped. It's far more critical that we find out why a child is or isn't growing at her full potential than to compare her to her "peers."

As to those "peers" - the only characteristic they share is a similar history in previous scores. SGPs do not attempt to add student characteristics into their description, and we have very good evidence that this creates a bias (one not well ameliorated, by the way, by the use of value-added models, or VAMs). Given that classrooms are not assigned similar rosters of students, either within or between schools and districts, there is every reason to believe the teachers who educate the neediest children will suffer a disadvantage.

And then there's the problem of using the median SGP of a class, which is mathematically suspect. All of this adds up to a system about which any teacher should have serious concerns. So it's more than a little frustrating to read a piece where these concerns are brushed aside so easily. NJDOE owes the teachers of this state serious answers to their concerns; they are not to be found here.

As to the SGOs: I would refer all readers to Dr. Howard Wainer, a distinguished education researcher:

Even if educators choose to create their own tests for SGO purposes, there are other things to worry about. Sure teachers make up tests all the time, but as noted researcher Dr. Howard Wainer explains, those tests usually have two purposes: to push the students into studying and to see if the course of future instruction needs to be adjusted.

“But when you add a further purpose – the formal evaluation of the teacher and the principal – the test score must carry a much heavier load,” says Wainer, author of Uneducated Guesses—Using Evidence to Uncover Misguided Education Policies (Princeton University Press, 2011). “Even professionally developed tests cannot support this load without extensive pre-testing and revision,” something that takes a lot of time and a lot of money.
That leaves portfolios, another idea that Wainer believes “only sounds good if you say it fast.”
When portfolios were used as part of a statewide testing program in Vermont about 15 years, ago it was a colossal failure,” he recalls. “It was unreliable, unpredictable and fantastically expensive,” and soon, state officials abandoned the program.
What is the lesson to be learned? “Some measurement methods that work acceptably well at a classroom level do not scale,” explains Wainer. “A folder of a student’s work produced for a parent-teacher conference illustrates what is going on and directs the discussion, but when the folder is reified as a ‘Portfolio Assessment,’ we have asked more from it than it can provide. Research shows that portfolios are well suited for one purpose but not the other. What would make New Jersey’s use different?” [emphasis mine]
There is no research that NJDOE has put forward - none - that justifies using SGOs as 15% of a teacher's evaluation. As a long-time observer of NJDOE, I strongly suspect SGOs are being put into place in an attempt to placate critics who have pointed out that only a small number of teachers will be subject to evaluation by SGPs.

Again: I am not going to criticize the motivations of any of the members of EPAC. But this op-ed piece is not helpful: it evades addressing the central concerns with AchieveNJ, and it asks teachers to happily sign on to a system of evaluation that has no support in research. Unless and until the NJDOE is prepared to seriously and substantively answer the criticisms leveled against these rigid, top-down, unsupported regulations, no teacher should buy into what comes across as little better than propaganda.

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