Here is the story of Rebecca Cusick, a fourth-grade teacher in Fall River, Massachusetts, and her “value-added” evaluation score. This assessment method uses students’ standardized test scores to determine a teacher’s effectiveness. Assessment experts say the method is unreliable, but reformers still insist on using it. In state after state, teacher evaluations derived through this method are sometimes labeling very effective teachers as ineffective, and vice versa.
By Rebecca Cusick
I am crushed. I got my MCAS [Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System] growth score for last year in an email. My heart sank when I saw the score, my entire year summed up in a number. In the eyes of the state, I am not even “average.” In fact, they probably believe I did my students more harm than good.
I knew it would be low, and I was totally prepared to dismiss it as unimportant and meaningless. So it’s not that I am shocked. Why is it then that I feel as though someone knocked the wind out of me?
Most teachers understand how the composition of a class impacts their test scores. They know that children with special needs don’t have the chance to show their strengths on a bubble test. They know that English Language Learners get lost in the phrasing of the questions, and that homeless children don’t put tests high up on their priority list. They know that students who are frequently absent or changing schools have gaps in their learning.
But not all teachers know, as I do, about the voodoo math behind value-added scores. I’m aware of the flaws in the assessments, in the calculation of growth, and the collateral damage they cause. I devour articles and editorials that condemn the use of testing for high stakes decisions. So why do I, of all people, take this so personally when I should know better?
Maybe it’s because I gave it everything I’ve got. Last year’s class was needier than some of my previous groups. They shared stories of desperation that would prevent most adults from functioning well. Sleeping on a floor in an over-crowded, rat-infested apartment, seeing a family member arrested, and looking forward to dinner at the soup kitchen; these are not the tales of an idyllic childhood.
I vowed to help them grow both academically and emotionally. I ran after school math and science clubs, and I started a food pantry for our families. Afraid to even take a sick day, I spent unprecedented amounts of time analyzing data and planning lessons. I showed fidelity to the new reading program, and I differentiated my instruction.
When June arrived I knew my kids had improved considerably. Their vocabulary was better and their writing was stronger. They could read harder texts, and they solved math problems that would have reduced them to tears in September. More important, they worked harder and they cared more. They exchanged cheerful greetings and kind words. They may not have been on par, academically, with their suburban peers, but I was proud of their progress. Now that the scores are out, all that positive change is reduced to a number. The big picture of their great improvement is blurry and out of focus. It all remains a secret.
My colleagues and I choose to work in an urban school with many challenges. We endure large class sizes, a test-based curriculum, and tons of criticism. We vent our frustrations to each other, but we faithfully greet each day with a smile and the commitment to do our very best. That’s why I take those pointless scores so personally. On some level, I believed my hard work would pay off, and I don’t mean financially. But the low digits next to my name imply that I am either lazy or incompetent. And for a brief moment, I question myself.
Why is this important? Because I need to go back in the trenches to once again battle overwhelming odds, and I must remain confident and determined. I must not let my spirit break. I must believe my work matters.
Just for the record, I am the same teacher with an exceptionally high growth score from the previous year. I declined the accolades from my well-meaning principal because we are a team with a common goal, not competitors. Will the number crunchers say I was talented one year but incompetent the next?