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VAMboozled!: Virginia SGP’s Side of the Story

In one of my most recent posts I wrote about how Virginia SGP, aka parent Brian Davison, won in court against the state of Virginia, requiring them to release teachers’ Student Growth Percentile (SGP) scores. Virginia SGP is a very vocal promoter of the use of SGPs to evaluate teachers’ value-added (although many do not consider the SGP model to be a value-added model (VAM); see general differences between VAMs and SGPs here). Regardless, he sued the state of Virginia to release teachers’ SGP scores so he could make them available to all via the Internet. He did this, more specifically, so parents and perhaps others throughout the state would be able to access and then potentially use the scores to make choices about who should and should not teach their kids. See other posts about this story here and here.

Those of us who are familiar with Virginia SGP and the research literature writ large know that, unfortunately, there’s much that Virginia SGP does not understand about the now loads of research surrounding VAMs as defined more broadly (see multiple research article links here). Likewise, Virginia SGP, as evidenced below, rides most of his research-based arguments on select sections of a small handful of research studies (e.g., those written by economists Raj Chetty and colleagues, and Thomas Kane as part of Kane’s Measures of Effective Teaching (MET) studies) that do not represent the general research on the topic. He simultaneously ignores/rejects the research studies that empirically challenge his research-based claims (e.g., that there is no bias in VAM-based estimates, and that because Chetty, Friedman, and Rockoff “proved this,” it must be true, despite the research studies that have presented evidence otherwise (see for example herehere, and here).

Nonetheless, given that him winning this case in Virginia is still noteworthy, and followers of this blog should be aware of this particular case, I invited Virginia SGP to write a guest post so that he could tell his side of the story. As we have exchanged emails in the past, which I must add have become less abrasive/inflamed as time has passed, I recommend that readers read and also critically consume what is written below. Let’s hope that we might have some healthy and honest dialogue on this particular topic in the end.

From Virginia SGP:

I’d like to thank Dr. Amrein-Beardsley for giving me this forum.

My school district recently announced its teacher of the year. John Tuck teaches in a school with 70%+ FRL students compared to a district average of ~15% (don’t ask me why we can’t even those #’s out). He graduated from an ordinary school with a degree in liberal arts. He only has a Bachelors and is not a National Board Certified Teacher (NBCT). He is in his ninth year of teaching specializing in math and science for 5th graders. Despite the ordinary background, Tuck gets amazing student growth. He mentors, serves as principal in the summer, and leads the school’s leadership committees. In Dallas, TX, he could have risen to the top of the salary scale already, but in Loudoun County, VA, he only makes $55K compared to a top salary of $100K for Step 30 teachers. Tuck is not rewarded for his talent or efforts largely because Loudoun eschews all VAMs and merit-based promotion.

This is largely why I enlisted the assistance of Arizona State law school graduate Lin Edrington in seeking the Virginia Department of Education’s (VDOE) VAM (SGP) data via a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) suit (see pertinent files here).

VAMs are not perfect. There are concerns about validity when switching from paper to computer tests. There are serious concerns about reliability when VAMs are computed with small sample sizes or are based on classes not taught by the rated teacher (as appeared to occur in New Mexico, Florida, and possibly New York). Improper uses of VAMs give reformers a bad name. This was not the case in Virginia. SGPs were only to be used when appropriate with 2+ years of data and 40+ scores recommended.

I am a big proponent of VAMs based on my reviews of the research. We have the Chetty/Friedman/Rockoff (CFR) studies, of course, including their recent paper showing virtually no bias (Table 6). The following briefing presented by Professor Friedman at our trial gives a good layman’s overview of their high level findings. When teachers are transferred to a completely new school but their VAMs remain consistent, that is very convincing to me. I understand some point to the cautionary statement of the ASA suggesting districts apply VAMs carefully and explicitly state their limitations. But the ASA definitely recommends VAMs for analyzing larger samples including schools or district policies, and CFR believe their statement failed to consider updated research.

To me, the MET studies provided some of the most convincing evidence. Not only are high VAMs on state standardized tests correlated to higher achievement on more open-ended short-answer and essay-based tests of critical thinking, but students of high-VAM teachers are more likely to enjoy class (Table 14). This points to VAMs measuring inspiration, classroom discipline, the ability to communicate concepts, subject matter knowledge and much more. If a teacher engages a disinterested student, their low scores will certainly rise along with their VAMs. CFR and others have shown this higher achievement carries over into future grades and success later in life. VAMs don’t just measure the ability to identify test distractors, but the ability of teachers to inspire.

So why exactly did the Richmond City Circuit Court force the release of Virginia’s SGPs? VDOE applied for and received a No Child Left Behind (NCLB) waiver like many other states. But in court testimony provided in December of 2014, VDOE acknowledged that districts were not complying with the waiver by not providing the SGP data to teachers or using SGPs in teacher evaluations despite “assurances” to the US Department of Education (USDOE). When we initially received a favorable verdict in January of 2015, instead of trying to comply with NCLB waiver requirements, my district of Loudoun County Publis Schools (LCPS) laughed. LCPS refused to implement SGPs or even discuss them. 

There was no dispute that the largest Virginia districts had committed fraud when I discussed these facts with the US Attorney’s office and lawyers from the USDOE in January of 2016, but the USDOE refused to support a False Claim Act suit. And while nearly every district stridently refused to use VAMs [i.e., SGPs], the Virginia Secretary of Education was falsely claiming in high profile op-eds that Virginia was using “progress and growth” in the evaluation of schools. Yet, VDOE never used the very measure (SGPs) that the ESEA [i.e., NCLB] waivers required to measure student growth. The irony is that if these districts had used SGPs for just 1% of their teachers’ evaluations after the December of 2014 hearing, their teachers’ SGPs would be confidential today. I could only find one county that utilized SGPs, and their teachers’ SGPs are exempt. Sometimes fraud doesn’t pay.

My overall goals are threefold:

  1. Hire more Science Technology Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) majors to get kids excited about STEM careers and effectively teach STEM concepts
  2. Use growth data to evaluate policies, administrators, and teachers. Share the insights from the best teachers and provide professional development to ineffective ones
  3. Publish private sector equivalent pay so young people know how much teachers really earn (pensions often add 15-18% to their salaries). We can then recruit more STEM teachers and better overall teaching candidates

What has this lawsuit and activism cost me? A lot. I ate $5K of the cost of the VDOE SGP suit even after the award[ing] of fees. One local school board member has banned me from commenting on his “public figure” Facebook page (which I see as a free speech violation), both because I questioned his denial of SGPs and some other conflicts of interests I saw, although indirectly related to this particular case. The judge in the case even sanctioned me $7K just for daring to hold him accountable. And after criticizing LCPS for violating Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA) by coercing kids who fail Virginia’s Standards of Learning tests (SOLs) to retake them, I was banned from my kids’ school for being a “safety threat.” 

Note that I am a former Naval submarine officer and have held Department of Defense (DOD) clearances for 20+ years. I attended a meeting this past Thursday with LCPS officials in which they [since] acknowledged I was no safety threat. I served in the military, and along with many I have fought for the right to free speech.

Accordingly, I am no shrinking violet. Despite having LCPS attorneys sanction perjury, the Republican Commonwealth Attorney refused to prosecute and then illegally censored me in public forums. So the CA will soon have to sign a consent order acknowledging violating my constitutional rights (he effectively admitted as much already). And a federal civil rights complaint against the schools for their retaliatory ban is being drafted as we speak. All of this resulted from my efforts to have public data released and hold LCPS officials accountable to state and federal laws. I have promised that the majority of any potential financial award will be used to fund other whistle blower cases, [against] both teachers and reformers. I have a clean background and administrators still targeted me. Imagine what they would do to someone who isn’t willing to bear these costs!

In the end, I encourage everyone to speak out based on your beliefs. Support your case with facts not anecdotes or hastily conceived opinions. And there are certainly efforts we can all support like those of Dr. Darling-Hammond. We can hold an honest debate, but please remember that schools don’t exist to employ teachers/principals. Schools exist to effectively educate students.


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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 Educati...