If you’ve paid any attention to K-12 education reform in Louisiana over the past several years, particularly about teacher evaluations, teacher preparation programs, and school accountability ratings, you’ve probably heard or read about the use of “value-added data”. It’s a wonky term, but even most lay people understand the concept of value-add – that is, something that adds value. A benefit or enhancement. Something desirable. But what does this term really mean when it comes to data used in K-12 education?

Over a decade ago, researchers at LSU and leaders at the Louisiana Board of Regents and Louisiana Department of Education collaborated to develop and implement a statistical model to better understand the value added by teachers and schools on student achievement. Since 2011, this value-added model (called “VAM” for short) has been used to provide valuable insight into the extent to which Louisiana university and other non-university teacher preparation programs are producing quality, effective new teachers and to pinpoint teacher preparation programs in need of improvement. The same data have also been used to serve as one of several components of annual job evaluations for all public school teachers and other academic professional staff, giving local superintendents and principals valuable information about which school teachers and other staff are performing well in their jobs and which need additional training, support, and even interventions to effectively teach and support students.

Exactly where do these data come from and how are they used? The data come from state standardized assessment (LEAP test) results that public school children take each year. Specifically, the test results collected and analyzed each year, and more importantly, analyzed over multiple years, provide insight into how students are performing relative to their own past performance and also how their performance compares to peers having similar characteristics (attendance, discipline, economically disadvantaged, special education, limited English proficiency, and gifted status). Here’s an example provided by the state Department of Education of how it works:

  • Suzy scored Approaching Basic (two levels below Mastery, which is the standard of proficiency) in English language arts each of the past three years. Suzy was not retained in any of those years; she was promoted to the next grade level each year. Comparing Suzy to students with the same prior year pattern, her peers, she is expected to score Approaching Basic (719) this year.
  • Suzy has a speech/language disability. All students with speech/language disabilities scored, on average, 1.5 points below their peers. Thus, the model adjusts her expected score to 717.5.
  • Suzy missed ten days of school. All students missing ten days of school scored, on average, 1.5 points below their peers. Thus, her expected score is further adjusted to 716.
  • No other characteristics listed above (which according to state law, must be considered) apply to Suzy, so they do not impact her expected score.
  • Suzy’s actual score was 726, thus Suzy exceeded her expected score by ten points – the “value added” by that year’s teacher and school.

Since 2018, VAM has begun to be used by state education officials as one of two indicators of “growth” or “progress” indicator in Louisiana’s K-12 education accountability system to measure school performance – that is, how well public schools are effectively educating students. Schools can earn additional points in the accountability formula for each student demonstrating growth, but growth is measured in a two-step process, as follows:

  • Step 1 – Growth to Proficiency: Measures the extent to which a student’s performance has approached or achieved proficiency or above (Mastery or above on state LEAP tests). This a simple calculation of the points a student needs to achieve each year to reach Mastery on the LEAP test by the 8th grade or by the final high school state assessments.
  • Step 2 – VAM: How a student performed relative to his/her individual expectations and relative to similar peers, as described earlier.

The first component above offers a straightforward approach to measuring whether all students in a school are making strides toward the goal of proficiency, which is consistent with being on grade level or on track to be college and career ready by the time they graduate. The second component measures whether students are doing just as well, or possibly just as poorly, as their similar peers. If no similar peers show growth, then students are considered to be performing “on par” with their peers – a potentially dangerous conclusion that they’re doing ok, when in actuality, all of those students may be in need of support and intervention to improve.

The conclusion that “our students are doing just as well or just as badly as similar students” could serve as a misleading message to parents and the public that a school’s performance with a particular group of students is acceptable and there is no need for improvement, when this may not be the case. It could be that all schools serving that particular student population need to do better.

The state Board of Elementary and Secondary Education (BESE) recently announced a workgroup to conduct a comprehensive review of Louisiana’s K-12 education accountability system, including how it measures growth in student achievement and how much growth should be expected among our public K-12 schools. How value-added data continue to be used will be a key question and consideration. Everyone seems to agree that the data offer valuable insight, but is a measure of how Louisiana public schools are performing relative to each other, instead of compared nationally and/or measured against nationally-recognized proficiency standards, really the right metric for school accountability?

We’re not so sure an in-state relative measure holds a high enough bar and represents what we aspire to achieve for Louisiana’s children. We must be able to maintain a focus on student proficiency while using valuable in-state comparison data to help schools and educators pinpoint where true progress is being achieved (so they can replicate it) and where improvements are needed.

We can’t just sit around comparing schools in one Louisiana community to another, patting ourselves on the back for having “top-ranked” schools in a state ranked among the lowest in student achievement in the nation, where roughly two-thirds of all public school children are performing below proficiency. We can do better than that, and it begins with setting high expectations and being transparent about our progress.