High Stakes Teaching: The Value-Added Sham

teacher and studentIn one of the more ham-fistedly symbolic episodes of the 1960s Twilight Zone series, a Kafkaesque tribunal declares people to be “obsolete” based on their allegiance to outmoded cultural practices like literacy and critical thought. Operating in the same vein, the Los Angeles Times’ recent publication of the so-called “value-added” assessments of Los Angeles Unified elementary teachers was another “legitimizing” victory for the destructive regime of high stakes testing and a blow for outmoded practices like literacy and critical thought. Puppets in a virtual tribunal, LAUSD educators who have spent years creating classroom environments that challenge and engage students suddenly woke up one morning to find themselves stamped “ineffective” or “effective” based solely on their students’ standardized test scores.

Nationwide, many teachers oppose the value-added model on the grounds that it reduces teacher performance to one decidedly narrow, politically, and culturally suspect criterion. Test scores measure how well students can master the culturally prescribed knowledge assessed on standardized, norm-referenced tests, not their critical thinking skills.

The regime of No Child Left Behind (NCLB) has institutionalized the practice of teaching to the test, such that culturally responsive approaches to curriculum and instruction are few and far between. In addition to its gutlessness, the Times article was noteworthy for its egregious omissions—namely, its failure to provide an analysis of the concrete specific teaching methodologies that supposedly inform student testing gains.

By smearing an empathic, engaged and highly regarded teacher as “ineffective” because of her low test scores, the Times undercut its ostensible motive for this expose. Publishing the value-added results has been defended as a way to “empower” parents, yet the reductive criterion of success in high stakes testing tells us absolutely nothing about whether a teacher is critically conscious about how students’ differential access to power and privilege influences their learning outcomes.

It tells us nothing about whether a teacher has tailored her instruction to value and incorporate the cultural capital, lived experience and cultural knowledge that diverse students bring to the classroom.

Moreover, it tells us nothing about whether or not that teacher has organized her class to creatively affirm authentic student voices, develop her students as leaders and foster an environment in which cooperative non-hierarchical learning strategies are privileged over drill and kill intellectual taxidermy.

Time and again studies from such organizations as Californian’s for Justice, Harvard Civil Rights Project, and UCLA’s Institute for Democracy have demonstrated the danger of relying upon standardized tests as the sole criteria for student achievement and teacher effectiveness. The strongest determinant of whether a teacher’s practice is effective is how well they develop culturally respectful relationships with students, create a caring yet rigorous atmosphere for critical inquiry and critical literacy, connect with students’ home cultures, and employ multiple teaching strategies such as instructional conversation, sparing use of lecture, extensive group work and creative and expository writing.

Yet, the Obama administration’s fetishistic emphasis on test scores as the major barometer of teacher effectiveness, a linchpin of its “Race to the Top” initiative, is especially insidious for students of color. For example, the disproportionate suspension of African American students is a national epidemic that has been exacerbated by the NCLB high stakes testing regime. Disengaged from school curricula in which they are not meaningfully reflected, African American students have become ensnared in a public school disciplinary apparatus that fuels the nation’s prison complex.

In some LAUSD schools the percentage of African American students who have been suspended is often two and three times greater than their percentage in the general student population. According to the 2001 Indiana University study “The Color of Discipline,” black students were disciplined more harshly than white and Latino students who committed similar infractions. Students who are repeatedly suspended are more likely to drop out, and are in turn more likely to be funneled into the prison pipeline.

A recent report by the Los Angeles-based Advancement Project concluded that the intersection of high stakes testing and zero tolerance discipline policies have created a perfect storm for black and brown students already deemed expendable by teachers and administrators. Wedded to the bottom line of generating better test and Academic Performance Index (API) scores, schools are increasingly motivated to move “problem” students along to alternative schools and GED programs.

Indeed, “zero tolerance and high stakes testing have followed the same path on the way to being…frequently substituted for real education reform.” The value-added sham won’t help parents and communities of color struggling to achieve educational equity for youth who have already been intuitively assigned a jail cell by a public school culture marching in lockstep with the teach to the test ethos.

Sikivu Hutchinson

Sikivu Hutchinson is the editor of blackfemlens.org and the author of the forthcoming Moral Combat: Black Atheists, Gender Politics and Secular America. She is a Senior Fellow with the Institute for Humanist Studies.


  1. says

    I’m iffy on testing teachers, but as far as testing goes, “value added” testing is better than testing against national or state norms. It tests whether a student attained one year of learning in a one-year time frame.

    That corrects for the problem where the community average is lower or higher than the state average. As long as the students progress at the desired speed, the education is considered adequate.

    The big issue is what is being measured. How does one measure if students going to a teacher end up learning about self-discipline, or that one teacher values writing more than another. Maybe one teacher creates collaborative projects, while another encourages fierce competition — both are valuable. The tests do not measure those things.

    As for pay for performance – that’s a very risky idea. It would be better to try to make gains without tying it to money. If there’s to be any “bonus” it should be based on multi-year evaluations, not the last set of test scores.

  2. says

    True teaching and education is precisely about ADDING VALUE to the young persons’s experience.

    I admit that I don’t find much value added in trying to follow and justify the evolving ins and outs of ‘professional’ educationese, including whatever burocrats and self-serving politicians think they mean by the slogan ‘value added’.

    Anyhow what’s seems to have gone wrong is not the mere use of the concept of ‘value added’, but its use with a tragically confined definition of ‘value’.

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