Sarah Wysocki was out of work for only a few days after she was fired by DCPS… (Jahi Chikwendiu/The Washington…)
By the end of her second year at MacFarland Middle School, fifth-grade teacher Sarah Wysocki was coming into her own.
“It is a pleasure to visit a classroom in which the elements of sound teaching, motivated students and a positive learning environment are so effectively combined,” Assistant Principal Kennard Branch wrote in her May 2011 evaluation.
He urged Wysocki to share her methods with colleagues at the D.C. public school. Other observations of her classroom that year yielded good ratings.
Two months later, she was fired.
Wysocki, 31, was let go because the reading and math scores of her students didn’t grow as predicted. Her undoing was “value-added,” a complex statistical tool used to measure a teacher’s direct contribution to test results. The District and at least 25 states, under prodding from the Obama administration, have adopted or are developing value-added systems to assess teachers.
When her students fell short, the low value-added trumped her positives in the classroom. Under the D.C. teacher evaluation system, called IMPACT , the measurement counted for 50 percent of her annual appraisal. Classroom observations, such as the one Branch conducted, represented 35 percent, and collaboration with the school community and schoolwide testing trends made up the remaining 15 percent.
(Opinion: Firing reveals flaws in value-added evaluation)
Her story opens a rare window into the revolution in how teachers across the country are increasingly appraised — a mix of human observation and remorseless algorithm that is supposed to yield an authentic assessment of effectiveness. In the view of school officials, Wysocki, one of 206 D.C. teachers fired for poor performance in 2011, was appropriately judged by the same standards as her peers. Colleagues and friends say she was swept aside by a system that doesn’t always capture a teacher’s true value.
Proponents of value-added contend that it is a more meaningful yardstick of teacher effectiveness — growth over time — than a single year’s test scores. They also contend that classroom observations by school administrators can easily be colored by personal sentiments or grudges. Researchers for the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation reported in 2010 that a teacher’s value-added track record is among the strongest predictors of student achievement gains.
Which is why D.C. school officials have made it the largest component of their evaluation system for teachers in grades with standardized tests. The District aims to expand testing so that 75 percent of classroom teachers can be rated using value-added data. Now, only about 12 percent are eligible.
“We put a lot of stock in it,” said Jason Kamras, chief of human capital for D.C. schools.
Yet even researchers and educators who support value-added caution that it can, in essence, be overvalued. Test results are too vulnerable to conditions outside a teacher’s control, some experts say, to count so heavily in a high-stakes evaluation. Poverty, learning disabilities and random testing day incidents such as illness, crime or a family emergency can skew scores.
The District attempts to compensate for some of these factors, weighing special education status, English proficiency, attendance, and eligibility for free or reduced-price lunch — a common proxy for poverty — in developing growth predictions for students.
But some experts say it should never be a decisive factor in a teacher’s future.
“It has a place, but I wouldn’t give it pride of place,” said Henry Braun, professor of education and public policy at Boston College. He contends that only random assignment of teachers and students — wholly impractical in big school systems — can eliminate enough bias and error to obtain a valid measure of how much teachers improve student performance.
Some states are taking a more conservative approach than the District. New York recently set value-added at 20 percent of annual evaluations. Tennessee and Minnesota have the ceiling at 35 percent. Other states, such as Colorado and Ohio, mandate that 50 percent of teacher assessments must use student growth data but leave it up to local school districts whether to use value-added or other measures.
“You can get me to walk down the road with you to say value-added is relevant, but 50 percent is too weighted,” said Washington Teachers’ Union President Nathan Saunders.
Kamras said the disconnect between the observations of Wysocki’s classroom and her value-added scores was “quite rare.” Most teachers with poor ratings in one area, he said, are also substandard in the other.
“It doesn’t necessarily suggest that anything wrong happened,” he said. “Sometimes it’s just not possible to know for sure.”
Wysocki said there is another possible explanation: Many students arrived at her class in August 2010 after receiving inflated test scores in fourth grade.