VAMboozled!: Bias in VAMs, According to Validity Expert Michael T. Kane

During the still ongoing, value-added lawsuit in New Mexico (see my most recent update about this case here), I was honored to testify as the expert witness on behalf of the plaintiffs (see, for example, here). I was also fortunate to witness the testimony of the expert witness who testified on behalf of the defendants – Thomas Kane, Economics Professor at Harvard and former Director of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation’s Measures of Effective Teaching (MET) studies. During Kane’s testimony, one of the highlights (i.e., for the plaintiffs), or rather the low-lights (i.e., for him and the defendants), in my opinion, was when one of the plaintiff’s attorney’s questioned Kane, on the stand, about his expertise in the area of validity. In sum, Kane responded that he defined himself as an “expert” in the area, having also been trained by some of the best. Consequently, the plaintiff’s attorney’s questioned Kane about different types of validity evidences (e.g., construct, content, criterion), and Kane could not answer those questions. The only form of validity evidence with which he was familiar, and which he could clearly define, was evidence related to predictive validity. This hardly made him the expert he proclaimed himself to be minutes prior.

Let’s not mince words, though, or in this case names.

A real expert in validity (and validity theory) is another Kane, who goes by the full name of Michael T. Kane. This Kane is The Samuel J. Messick Chair in Test Validity at the Educational Testing Service (ETS); this Kane wrote one of the best, most contemporary, and currently most foundational papers on validity (see here); and this Kane just released an ETS-sponsored paper on Measurement Error and Bias in Value-Added Models certainly of interest here. I summarize this piece below (see the PDF of this report here).

In this paper Kane examines “the origins of [value-added model (VAM)-based] bias and its potential impact” and indicates that bias that is observed “is an increasing linear function of the student’s prior achievement and can be quite large (e.g., half a true-score standard deviation) for very low-scoring and high-scoring students [i.e., students in the extremes of any normal distribution]” (p. 1). Hence, Kane argues, “[t]o the extent that students with relatively low or high prior scores are clustered in particular classes and schools, the student-level bias will tend to generate bias in VAM estimates of teacher and school effects” (p. 1; see also prior posts about this type of bias herehere, and here; see also Haertel (2013) cited below). Kane concludes that “[a]djusting for this bias is possible, but it requires estimates of generalizability (or reliability) coefficients that are more accurate and precise than those that are generally available for standardized achievement tests” (p. 1; see also prior posts about issues with reliability across VAMs herehere, and here).

Kane’s more specific points of note:

  • To accurately calculate teachers’/schools’ value-added, “current and prior scores have to be on the same scale (or on vertically aligned scales) for the differences to make sense. Furthermore, the scale has to be an interval scale in the sense that a difference of a certain number of points has, at least approximately, the same meaning along the scale, so that it makes sense to compare gain scores from different parts of the scale…some uncertainty about scale characteristics is not a problem for many applications of vertical scaling, but it is a serious problem if the proposed use of the scores (e.g., educational accountability based on growth scores) demands that the vertical scale be demonstrably equal interval” (p. 1).
  • Likewise, while some approaches can be used to minimize the need for such scales (e.g., residual gain scores, covariate-adjustment models, and ordinary least squares (OLS) regression approaches which are of specific interest in this piece), “it is still necessary to assume [emphasis added] that a difference of a certain number of points has more or less the same meaning along the score scale for the current test scores” (p. 2).
  • Related, “such adjustments can [still] be biased to the extent that the predicted score does not include all factors that may have an impact on student performance. Bias can also result from errors of measurement in the prior scores included in the prediction equation…[and this can be]…substantial” (p. 2).
  • Accordingly, “gains for students with high true scores on the prior year’s test will be overestimated, and the gains for students with low true scores in the prior year will be underestimated. To the extent that students with relatively low and high true scores tend to be clustered in particular classes and schools, the student-level bias will generate bias in estimates of teacher and school effects” (p. 2).
  • Hence, if not corrected, this source of bias could have a substantial negative impact on estimated VAM scores for teachers and schools that serve students with low prior true scores and could have a substantial positive impact for teachers and schools that serve mainly high-performing students” (p. 2).
  • Put differently, random errors in students’ prior scores may “tend to add a positive bias to the residual gain scores for students with prior scores above the population mean, and they [may] tend to add a negative bias to the residual gain scores for students with prior scores below the mean. Th[is] bias is associated with the well-known phenomenon of regression to the mean” (p. 10).
  • Although, at least this latter claim — that students with relatively high true scores in the prior year could substantially and positively impact their teachers’/schools value-added estimates — does run somewhat contradictory to other claims as evidenced in the literature in terms of the extent to which ceiling effectssubstantially and negatively impact their teachers’/schools value-added estimates (see, for example, Point #7 as per the ongoing lawsuit in Houston here, and see also Florida teacher Luke Flint’s “Story” here).
  • In sum, and as should be a familiar conclusion to followers of this blog, “[g]iven that the results of VAMs may be used for high-stakes decisions about teachers and schools in the context of accountability programs,…any substantial source of bias would be a matter of great concern” (p. 2).

Citation: Kane, M. T. (2017). Measurement error and bias in value-added models.Princeton, NJ: Educational Testing Service (ETS) Research Report Series. doi:10.1002/ets2.12153 Retrieved from

See also Haertel, E. H. (2013). Reliability and validity of inferences about teachers based on student test scores (14th William H. Angoff Memorial Lecture). Princeton, NJ: Educational Testing Service (ETS).

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Audrey Amrein-Beardsley

Audrey Amrein-Beardsley, a former middle- and high-school mathematics teacher, received her Ph.D. in 2002 from Arizona State University in the Division of Educational Leadership and Policy Studies with an emphasis on Research Methods. Awarded tenure in 2010 as an ASU Presidential Exemplar, she is currently an Associate Professor in the...