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Los Angeles Times wins AP award for its controversial ‘value-added’ database

Despite relying on a metric education scholars have called “volatile” and “incomplete,” the Los Angeles Times was given a journalism award for its controversial grading of over 11,000 Los Angeles teachers based on their “value-added” scores.

The national daily was selected to receive the Associated Press Media Editors First Amendment Sweepstakes Award for its “Grading the Teacher” series and accompanying database ranking teacher performance. The distinction is the newswire’s most prestigious and is dolled out by a committee comprised of Associated Press editors.

The Times says the “value-added” model “projects a child’s future performance by using past scores — in this case, on math and English tests. That projection is then compared to the student’s actual results. The difference is the ‘value’ that the teacher added or subtracted.” The scores of 11,500 teachers were made available to the public on the Times’ website. Each scorecard is accompanied with a comment section where teachers can explain their results. Parents and students are also welcomed to describe their experiences with that educator and school. An internal search engine allows parents to easily look up teachers by their last name or the school in which the teachers are employed.

Groups representing teachers and the school district, the second largest in the country, were critical of the paper’s decision to publish similar results last year. While the school district attempted to dissuade the Times this second time, union groups have largely stayed silent.

While the newspaper was careful to explain the limitations of the statistically generated results, it’s FAQ section regarding the topic reads, “Research has repeatedly found that teachers are the single most important school-related factor in a child’s education. Until now, parents have had no objective information about the effectiveness of their child’s teacher.”

The American Independent spoke to a data specialist at the American Federation of Teachers for a story in July. A reposting of the conversation:

To Rob Weil, director of field programs and educational issues at AFT , the way the Times apportions the soundness of the research is problematic. While he doesn’t disagree with the paper’s definition of “value-added,” he cautions, “value-added isn’t like statistics. If we said we want an average of numbers from the same data set, everyone does it the same way,” he told The American Independent. “But value-added is a developing statistical tool,” and therefore inconsistent. He points to a study by analysts at the University of Colorado at Boulder that ran the same data set the Times used only to come up with substantially different results.

Many large school districts and states have instituted evaluation policies that rely, in part, on value-added scores. Houston, Los Angeles (PDF) and New York state, where a provision to expand value-added scores to nearly half of a teacher’s overall performance index is being contested by labor groups in court, have introduced the controversial metric. New York City, in a surprise move, dropped its effort to employ the system Thursday, handing off the responsibility to the state. Administrators in Albany must institute a state-wide teacher assessment system as part of the $700 million New York won in Race to the Top funds from the federal government.

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