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Updated: 03/13/2014 08:00:05AM

Grading teachers is a complex, perplexing issue

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Florida’s Value Added Model — an equation used to grade a teacher’s performance — has been called complex, confusing and unfair. Early results indicate all those adjectives are appropriate.

The Florida Department of Education came up with the plan a couple of years ago to reward top teachers and coax those whose performance is lacking to improve. Eventually the state plans to tie VAM scores to a teacher’s pay. Early evidence indicates there is no easy way to tell if a teacher is doing the job in class, and coupling an evaluation with FCAT can be misleading.

The issue was addressed in a letter this week from Highlands County Superintendent of Schools Wally Cox in reaction to a report that the Florida Times-Union plans to publish VAM scores.

“As Superintendent, when I go to conferences around the State of Florida, Highlands County is among the very best districts,” Cox said. “I hear good things everywhere I go about our district. The reason for that is because of the high quality of education that is taking place and for the dedicated and professional individuals we have. I hope you know that I appreciate your efforts and that I feel blessed to work with such wonderful individuals. Please know that Superintendents in Florida continue to support your great work even during these difficult times.”

The letter from Cox included an attachment of a well-worded letter from St. Johns County School Superintendent Joseph G. Joyner who was critical of release of the information.

The Tampa Bay Times has exposed weaknesses in the VAM process in a couple of stories this past year.

For example, Hillsborough County Teacher of the Year Patrick Boyko is considered an outstanding educator by all practical standards. Yet Boyko’s VAM scores were a minus 10.23. That means his students did 10 percent worse on the FCAT than similar Florida students. A year earlier, Boyko earned a VAM score of minus 19. A year earlier, Geoffrey Robinson, a teacher in Pinellas County, had 60 percent of his upper-level calculus students test so well they earned college credit. Yet his VAM score in student achievement was 10.63 out of 40.

There are other examples of what appears to be unfair VAM scores. Just using these examples from Times’ stories, it is obvious there is a problem.

We question how comparing test scores — especially those of teachers who do not teach the core subjects tested in FCAT — can give a clear picture of an educator’s value. The test cannot look into a classroom to see if the teacher is engaging and challenging students. It cannot address whether the teacher has large classes, small classes or if the students that person is assigned to are strong in the English language, or if they are getting any support at home.

There are so many variables involved in whether teachers are doing their job that no equation — especially one spelled out over 17 pages — can be accurate in every evaluation. And, there is no appeal process we know of.

Florida, and other states, struggles to improve the education of its students. And, as unreliable as it is, testing seems like the one avenue to determine if students are getting a good education and whether or not our teachers are excelling at their profession.

So far, however, testing has not proven to be the perfect answer.

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