“Value-Added” Assessment: Tool for Improvement or Educational “Nuclear Option”?

"Value-Added" Assessment: Tool for Improvement or Educational "Nuclear Option"?

Diane [Ravitch] says, Let’s return to the old public school system, he [Chester Finn of the Hoover Institution and the Fordham Foundation] said. “I say, let’s blow it up.” Sam Dillon, “Scholar’s School Reform U-Turn Shakes Up Debate,” The New York Times, March 2, 2010.


On the surface, value-added assessment appears to be a new and promising educational innovation. The idea of value-added assessment involves measuring the changes over time in student test scores and attributing these changes to a teacher. If students score higher on a standardized test relative to the prior year, then the teacher is teaching well or “adding value” to the student. If the student test scores decline or do not improve relatively, then the teacher is not adding value. The Los Angeles Times in August 2010(1) suddenly gave it national prominence by publishing its own analysis of “value added” applied to the Los Angeles public school teachers’ test improvement performance. The Obama administration has aggressively embraced it, making states’ eligibility for $4.35 billion in competitive, federal, Race to the Top grants contingent on states linking teacher evaluation to student test data. The growing enthusiasm over value-added assessment, however, belies what is actually a damaging policy for public education. Value-added assessment promises, rather, to dismantle teachers’ unions, deintellectualize teachers’ jobs, to refashion schools according to corporate-profit-making initiatives and to burn out experienced teachers at ever faster rates. What its proponents fail to realize is that value added contributes to the destruction of public education by 1) participating in a broader corporate reform scheme of privatization and 2) objectifying knowledge, or turning knowledge into “things,” that is, units that can be measured, compared and transmitted at the expense of genuine learning.

Value added is attractive to supporters because it appears to offer an objective measure of teacher performance that can be numerically quantified and tracked, while also seeming to promise the ability to distill out from the data those teaching methods which result in higher test scores. The dream for proponents is to identify those methods, those teacher behaviors that raise test scores, and then require teachers to adopt those allegedly successful methods. Additionally, value added promises to “out” those teachers who do not sufficiently raise test scores, thereby putting pressure on teachers and administrators to raise scores and especially putting pressure on teachers unions by suggesting that firing, job security and pay be linked not to professional review, tenure and seniority, but rather to student test score improvement or decline. In fact, proponents even want to use it to transform university teacher preparation programs by using the test score outcomes of school kids to determine which teacher education programs produce teachers who “add the most value.” In other words, the value of an education professor who prepares future teachers would be measured by teaching candidates’ future students’ test scores.

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Although value-added assessment may seem like a new idea to most Americans, the idea came out of Tennessee in the early 1990s and was viewed skeptically in academic and policy circles for nearly two decades. From then until now, there has been relatively little peer-reviewed, empirically-based research supporting or challenging the implementation of it with the contentious debate focusing universally around the technical and methodological problems of the approach.(2) Early versions of value-added models were notoriously flawed, yet recent alleged advances in the statistical modeling(3) has bolstered its appeal with those who accept its basic premise, especially standardized test-based measures of learning. Meanwhile, the financial incentivizing of the idea by the Obama administration and educational philanthropists like Gates and Broad(4) and longstanding drumbeating from right-wing foundations and now the popularity from the Los Angeles Times analysis has given value-added assessment sudden prominence. Yet, there has been a great deal of criticism of the idea in both academia and the popular press.(5) Some of the more damning criticisms have pointed to how value-added assessment attributes to a single teacher the teaching done by several teachers, including tutors, now more prevalent than ever with the Supplemental Educational Services provision of No Child Left Behind (NCLB). Critics have also suggested that value added treats test scores as the best and indeed only valuable measurement of student learning. Hence, value-added assessment is seen to share the same deficits of NCLB (which, despite the extreme emphasis on standardized testing, did not result in higher scores). It is criticized for overemphasizing standardized testing at the expense of more holistic assessments and pedagogical approaches that account for and encourage student understanding (particularly in relation to nonquantifiable types of knowledge, like humanities and arts learning). It is also criticized for narrowing the curriculum, for encouraging teachers to “teach to the test” and compromise meaningful lessons for test preparation sessions.

Even those most sympathetic to the idea have espoused concerns about the technical limitations of value-added assessment. Writing in the Wall Street Journal(6) Carl Bialik, the “Numbers Guy” points out that 1) year to year, “a large proportion of teachers who rate highly one year fall to the bottom of the charts the next year”; 2) “… good teachers aren’t easy to identify this way. For one thing, students aren’t always assigned to teachers randomly. A teacher who gets more than his share of students who learn slowly because of his knack for helping them might be penalized at the end of the year”; 3) small sample sizes (a class of 15-20 students in a year) yield unreliable analyses, with the Department of Education estimating that, even in three years of data, “one in four teachers is likely to be misclassified because unrelated variables creep in.” Despite the seemingly dire methodological limitations of value-added assessment, Bialik nonetheless concludes that it looks like a useful tool relative to the alternative, namely subjective observations. The idea that Bialik and so many others find attractive is that the test scores offer an “objective” measure of a teachers’ quality. Even liberal critics of value-added assessment like Stanford education Professor and Obama campaign adviser Linda Darling-Hammond embrace this assumption of objectivity, suggesting that standardized testing can be a valuable tool, but that the methodological limitations of value-added assessment mean that it should be combined with other forms of assessment such as observation, not that the approach should be rejected outright. But this assumption of the objectivity of value-added assessment is a major fallacy.

Two criticisms of value-added assessment have been largely absent from the debate: 1) value-added assessment installs particular ideological and political values and ways of thinking, while appearing to be value neutral and it, hence, contributes to a dangerous anti-critical/anti-intellectual approach to schooling that is thoroughly at odds with the best traditions of public education for citizen formation; 2) in the current context of rapidly expanding public school privatization, market approaches to school reform and virulent anti-unionism, value-added assessment contributes to the destructive trend toward the making of a new, two-tiered educational system. This is having multiple effects: 1) it is sets the stage for a deskilled and low-paid, private labor force; 2) it makes profits for investors at the commodified bottom; but 3) it leaves in place a highly unequal system, while; 4) it drains away much needed public school resources to data crunching and test companies.

Whose Value? What Values?

On September 2, 2010, Arne Duncan’s successor as “CEO” of the Chicago Public Schools (CPS), Ron Huberman, appeared before the City Club of Chicago and described value-added assessment as a tool that is beyond question or debate. He compared it to a car. You don’t ask whether cars exist or not, he proclaimed, you just use one. Same with value-added assessment. All it measures is a change in performance over time. This, explained Huberman, would in the future be a central part of what Huberman described as the “culture of performance” he plans for CPS. CPS has an office of performance management and its vision for school improvement is to break down opposition to the enforcement of learning. In this perspective, every student can learn that the mandated knowledge and responsibility for learning is downwardly delegated to the individual teacher. The teacher is to learn how to diagnose obstacles to learning by employing a battery of tests and, ultimately, according to the CPS performance management web site, the teacher will be able to overcome the “core” obstacles to learning. Unfortunately, these core obstacles do not include comprehending what makes learning meaningful, relevant and motivating as opposed to deadening and uninteresting for students. While Huberman’s enthusiasm to overcome obstacles to learning are admirable and no doubt well-intended, like most admirers of the value-added approach he fails to grasp that the core obstacles to learning are specifically values related.

There are two basically different ideas of educational value at play in this debate. For proponents of value-added assessment, standardized tests contain certain, verifiable and numerically quantifiable knowledge. The tests are mistakenly thought to be objective. What is tragically denied in this view is the subjective aspect of test creation. Who made the test? What are their values, assumptions, class and cultural positions and frames of reference for deciding what is true and what is of value to know? What to include and exclude from the test?

The obvious examples that highlight just how subjective are the allegedly objective material on standardized tests are the historical and reading exam passages that are inevitably coming from a particular vantage point (typically ones of political, military and economic supremacy) such as the history of colonial conquest written by the victors rather than the victims, or the reading passage about the history of the production of soap that includes mention of advertising and marketing, but nothing about the workers who made it, or the racialized discourse that was used to promote its sale. It is common to cite Howard Zinn’s “People’s History” as an antidote to the history of the powerful few, but too often these counter examples become the basis for claiming “test bias” that can be overcome if only the tests are tweaked to be made “less biased” and “more objective.” But these are incoherent concepts because less biased still presumes a disinterested objectivity forged by removing subjective values, assumptions and ideals. The crucial point is that ideological assumptions and framing values are always inevitably informing what is selected and taught. Better teaching makes these ideological assumptions and framing values more explicit rather than denying them, so that the student can develop the capacity to interpret, analyze and criticize claims to truth. These kinds of skills of interpretation give students the capacity not only to better and more critically learn socially valued traditions of knowledge but also to analyze and comprehend what they experience in their communities and in their lives, what they are being taught in academic literature, mass media and popular culture and even to produce new, inventive and yet unimagined knowledge. Such knowledge is the basis not only for solving technical problems but dire social ones as well. Ultimately, such skills of interpretation are crucial to students learning how to analyze and address public problems such as poverty, inequality and the radically undemocratic concentrations of wealth and political power in the US and around the globe. Valuing learning as the struggle over values and meanings is not a fall to subjectivism. On the contrary, it is more scientific. As one of the greatest American philosophers John Dewey suggested, truths are arrived at through dialogue and debate; they are revisable and fallible as in science. Indeed, what value-added assessment does is it wraps canonical dogma in a veneer of scientism. If you put a number on the test, then who can argue with numbers?

Some might concede that historical or reading passages do have an inevitably subjective dimension, but not the hard sciences and math. Yet, as Eric Gutstein, Robert Moses, Nell Cobb and many other critical math education scholars show, the ways that students learn math and science is profoundly political. The realization of the politics of math has implications for student motivation and whether a lesson is meaningful or unbearable. Gutstein teaches decimals and fractions to Latino/a middle school students in Chicago through lessons that deal with, for example, “driving while brown/driving while black” – engaging the racial profiling that many of his students have experienced in their city. He links students’ experiences to the mathematical tools in order to help them better understand crucial public matters of inequality. Math becomes not merely academically valuable, but promises to become a tool for students to confront injustice. The values and assumptions of such a lesson are as important as those, say, that taught what percentage of Laos remains littered with American munitions from the “secret bombing” during the Vietnam War that dropped more bombs than in WW II and that continues to kill on a daily basis and that prevents agricultural and industrial development, and what percentage of Americans know this and why. Or the percentage of the earth’s species that are being killed off in a given year as the economic justification for educational reform premised on “global economic competition” has no way of dealing with the imminent ecological collapse. Yet, science is hardly neutral to the worst environmental polluting oil company, BP, which has been involved for seven years in creating the new environmental education standards and environmental curriculum for the state of California to be rolled out this winter for grades K-12 reaching 1000 school districts.(7)

What is at stake in education getting at crucial public values is nothing short of the survival of the planet. Educational reform can not wait to make primary values coincide with global citizenship, universal prosperity and ecological sustainability. On the contrary, pedagogical approaches and assessment strategies like value-added assessment prohibit what is taught in schools from being taken up in relation to the broader values and competing visions for the future informing the selection and teaching of that knowledge. To put it differently, public schools are places where matters of public importance must be publicly debated, so that students can learn the dispositions of engaged citizenship. If we ask the question of what do the proponents of value-added assessment and other anti-intellectual reforms want from public schools, the inevitable and now omnipresent answer is a workforce capable of competing in the global economy. But this is an incoherent claim as capital zooms around the globe in the global race to the bottom for cheap, no benefit, nonunionized labor to produce cheap, disposable consumer goods. American school kids should study hard doing memorization for standardized tests, so they can compete against low-paid Chinese factory workers? Or are they competing against all of the Indian moto-taxi drivers with graduate degrees in information technology who can be found leaning against their seldom hired cabs from Mysore to Bangalore?

Putting Value-Added Assessment in the Context of the Corporate Takeover of Public Schooling

Value-added assessment is being promoted in conjunction with a number of corporate education reforms including chartering and the linked, continued expansion of private, for-profit school managers (EMOs), corporate-style school turnarounds, scholarship tax credits (or neo-vouchers), standardized curriculum, the privatization of teacher education and educational leadership programs and a frontal assault on teachers unions. These efforts are being promoted by think tanks funded by corporate dollars, venture philanthropists including the Gates, Broad and Walton foundations, and they have been largely embraced by both political parties. For 20 years, the business metaphors of choice and competition, consuming education and corporate accountability have been invoked to reframe public education as a private consumable commodity. These corporate reforms have no way of dealing with the history of unequal public education other than to leave in place elite public schooling, while commodifying and commercializing the bottom tier of public schooling that has historically shortchanged working-class people and people of color.

The corporate reforms do not address the apartheid state of American schooling nor do they address the structural radical funding inequalities ($8,000 per pupil in Chicago and four times that in the north suburbs) that stand alone in the industrialized world, nor do the corporate reforms increase the intellectual climate in schools. What they do is they set the stage for a more thoroughly privatized bottom tier of the public system in which public tax dollars are funneled to private, for-profit companies, which can (as is now conclusively shown by studies) deliver nothing more than their public counterparts, but often deliver less. Public schools for the working class, poor people and people of color have long served as holding pens, often contributing to economic and political exclusion rather than ameliorating them, and they have kept youth out of the labor force. But despite the business metaphor that the public schools have failed and now it is time to give the market a chance, it must be recognized that the current failures of public education are a direct result of a century of business-led reforms (from the National Association of Manufacturers to the Business Roundtable to the local business groups like the Commercial Club of Chicago) and the linkage of public school investment to private wealth through property taxes. The latest corporate reforms do nothing to reverse these grievous ills historically affecting public schools, but they do make the most vulnerable kids into multi-billion dollar opportunities for owners of test and textbook publishing companies, for-profit school management companies, charter operators and information technology data manipulators.

By linking student test scores to teacher value, proponents of corporate school reform take dead aim at teachers unions, which they accuse of standing in the way of reform. The numbers, they will claim, speak for themselves. The unions do stand in the way of furthering the corporate school reform agenda that aims to turn teachers into low-paid delivery agents of pre-packaged curriculum and pre-formulated scripted lessons. The destruction of teachers’ work conditions and pay is a crucial prerequisite for maximizing owner profit in the business of running schools, essentially shifting public tax dollars away from working teachers and into the accounts of education investors. Teachers unions should take a hard line against the adoption of value-added assessment not only for the well-being of teachers, but for the well-being of kids who benefit as well from a well-paid, qualified and stable corps of teachers. And the society benefits by efforts to stave off the anti-public coordinated corporate reforms.

These anti-intellectual reforms, which are essentially prohibitions on thinking, are utterly antithetical to teachers acting as intellectuals, performing the public role of fostering that dialogue, debate and critical thought are the lifeblood of public, democratic life outside of schools. As the public problems facing humanity – from nuclear Armageddon to eco-collapse to technological disasters – appear to most citizens to be reaching a threatening point of no return, public schooling is one of the last public spheres not yet thoroughly overrun by commercial culture. It should be one point of hope where youth, the very embodiment of hope for the future, can be invested with the tools and skills for creative and deep thought to comprehend and ruthlessly criticize the present, so as to imagine a future that is not just free and equal, prosperous and peaceful, but that is survivable.


1. Available online here.

2. A search on Academic Search Premiere retrieved September 9, 2010, found only 33 scholarly, peer-reviewed articles on a search of value-added assessment, with several of these being unrelated to the search topic, and only seven empirically-based studies. A search of “value added model” gets 60 scholarly peer reviewed articles, but these overlap with the “value-added assessment” articles. To put in perspective how small a body of scholarly research this is, a search on “charter schools” nets 578 scholarly, peer-reviewed articles. The paucity of research ought to be a warning considering the massive impact of the adoption of the reform.

3. See EPI Briefing Paper #276 Eva L. Baker et. al “Problems with the Use of Student Test Scores to Evaluate Teachers” August 29, 2010, available here.

4. I detail the efforts of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and the Eli and Edythe Broad Foundation to push for the implementation of teacher evaluations linked to student test scores in my book “The Gift of Education: Venture Philanthropy and Public Education,” New York: Palgrave 2010.

5. For recent criticisms of VAM, see EPI Briefing Paper #276 Eva L. Baker et. al “Problems with the Use of Student Test Scores to Evaluate Teachers” August 29, 2010, available here. Gerald Bracey, “Value-Added Models Front and Center” Phi Delta Kappan February 2006 V87i6, pp. 478-479. Jennings, Jennifer L.; Corcoran, Sean P., “Beware of Geeks Bearing Formulas,” Phi Delta Kappan, May 2009, Vol. 90 Issue 9, p. 635-639, 5p.

6. Carl Bialik, “Needs Improvement: Where Teacher Report Cards Fall Short,” The Wall Street Journal, August 21, 2010, available online here.

7. Rick Dasog, “BP Aids State’s School Content,” The Sacramento Bee, September 7, 2010, p. 1A available online here. As Robin Truth Goodman and I have detailed, this is not BP’s first foray into teaching children about science, nature and the environment. See Kenneth J. Saltman and Robin Truth Goodman, “Rivers of Fire: BP Amoco’s impact on Education” in Kenneth J. Saltman and David Gabbard, “Education as Enforcement: the Militarization and Corporatization of Schools,” Second Edition, New York: Routledge 2010.