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09.06.13On ED Hirsch and Value-Added Scores in ELA

gadflyE.D. Hirsch had a fascinating piece over at the Gadfly blog this morning. (Who’d expect anything else?)

His argument is that linking gains in ELA to an individual teacher, especially a Reading or English teacher, is unfair, be cause reading scores, to Hisrsch, are a proxy measure of background knowledge and building background knowledvge is a school’s job- science and history teachers as much as English teachers.

I will be honest that I am a data guy.  I beleive in the power of data and think that for the most part it tells us more than it deceives us. And I am bullish on the careful and strategic use of value-added data to 1) learn a lot about what works 2) partially evaluate teachers 3) evaluate schools and school systems–generally I think the point of accountabiliy for scores should be the school rather than the individual teacher, with school leaders who see the whole picture having the direct say over who teaches for them. But really i love that data and tend to take it at face value..  Hirsch made me question some of my faith in the data on the ELA side. Reading scores are tricky… vey tricky… from a measurement standpoint and his argument linked to a lot of what the data on the data tells us.

  • It is true that reading/ELA scores are much less reliable and stable than math scores
  • It is true that ELA scores are “sticky” and hard to move. quickly and so hard to link to a specific teacher
  • It is true that the average top quintile teacher in math makes 1.5 times as big a gain, per year, as a top quintile teacher in ELA.
  • It is true that a larger proportion of what the ELA tests measure is introduced and reinforced outside the classroom (vocabulary and background knowledge, for example) than is the case with math.
  • It is true that a given teacher’s scores correlate 50% less to that teacher’s sores in a subsequent year when she is a reading teacher than when she is a math teacher.
  • It is true the background knowledge correlates strongly to reading comprehension levels.

Hirsch’s conclusion is that ELA results are a measure of school-wide effectiveness in instilling background knowledge and that value-added scores are unfair to reading teachers because they aren’t primarily responsible for the instilling (or neglecting) of background knowledge.  No only do all of a school’s teachers bear the responsiblity there but so do administrators–and not just building level administrators.  Because so often the success or failure of a school in building knowledge-base is a curricular decision far above the paygrade of the lowly teacher–would that it were otherwise!–it’s as much top-level decision makers who determine the fundamentals of results as the folks on the front line.

I’m not ready to throw out ELA scores yet.  They scores are probably a combination of things, among which background knowledge is one significant component and among which things more within the direct control of English teachers are also a component.  But his argument certainly erodes the direct line responsibility between reading teacher and ELA score and reinforces for me that scores are best when they go to and are applied by a good manager (i.e. a principal) who 1) sees the whole picture of an individual teacher’s work and is 2) him or herself deeply and directly responsibile for results over the long term and who 3) makes a decision about what those socres mean and how to fix them–is it a school wide curricular issue? a trainin issue? an issue with a few teaches? etc. All of those are possible explanations for low scores and so, my takeaway from Hirsch’s compelling argument is that the scores are still useful but useful not for enforcing a decision about an individua but informing one…. and that scores shoud inform a lot more than teacher eval.

Anyway, a shout-out to one of the most thought-provoking educators in country for a thought-provoking piece about the potential misuse of a good thing (data).

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4 Responses to “On ED Hirsch and Value-Added Scores in ELA”

  1. September 6, 2013 at 6:50 pm

    Great post, and I definitely agree with you about not completely abandoning data-driven decision making. Data is useful and certainly can and should inform decisions.

    But, I actually think that the most important take-away from Hirsch’s piece is more subtle. It strikes me that his core point is not that we could never use reading scores to inform evaluation decisions, but rather we can’t use *existing* state tests to inform eval. He notes, for example, that the VAM results for math were “modestly stable” because they were based on a curriculum. And so what a math teacher does (or does not do) in the classroom impacts a student’s score.

    Our existing summative ELA tests, Hirsch rightly notes, are not curriculum-based. Therefore, student scores aren’t necessarily directly attributable to an individual’s teachers planning and instruction. But, what if we moved from content-neutral to domain-specific, curriculum-based reading tests? Then, what a teacher did in class would have much more to do with how well students fared on the test, and I suspect the relationship between the test scores and the teacher’s effectiveness would be clearer.

    Of course, at the state level, that’s unlikely (and perhaps even undesirable) for lots of reasons. But at the school and district level, it certainly seems possible to shift the way we think about the link between curriculum and assessment in literature and writing classrooms.

    A thought-provoking post by Hirsch, indeed! Thanks for moving the conversation forward.

    • Lisa Hansel
      September 6, 2013 at 7:10 pm

      I would love to see, as Kathleen writes, domain-specific, curriculum-based reading tests. That would lead to far more coherence in what students’ study, thus leading to greater progress in increasing knowledge, vocabulary, and reading comprehension.

      But there would still be a problem with pinning the reading test score just on the reading teacher. The tests should include literary, historical, and scientific passages. Even with a curriculum-based test, the English, history, and science teachers would all still be responsible for student outcomes.

      I don’t see this as a complication–it’s a great way to use accountability to increase collaboration.

      • Doug_Lemov
        September 10, 2013 at 11:06 am

        Thanks to you both for great comments. I’m with you on domain specific. It would also be great from a culture stand point to say “every year we’ll ask you to analyze a passage from one of the following ten books at each grade level.” all of a sudden every teacher in the country would be able to refer to a consistent corpus of books she knew her students had read. They could ask things like: “How is the narrator’s innocence like or unlike Scout’s in To Kill a Mockingbird?

        • September 10, 2013 at 12:46 pm

          Have a set of agreed upon books for each grade level would be great from a culture stand point. One huge benefit would be facilitating widespread communication and thus democracy. Spend time in another country that speaks English and you quickly see how much of communication depends on shared knowledge.

          Specifying books for each grade would also be great in immediate, practical ways. It would make changing schools much easier for mobile students and would allow more teachers to collaborate.

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