In the No Child Left Behind era of high-stakes
testing, school administrators are facing their toughest challenge
ever. They are being held accountable for the performance of their
schools, yet current systems in public education typically fail to
provide them with the appropriate tools to manage effectively.
Although the classroom is where learning takes place,
superintendents and principals often know precious little about what is
happening within them. As never before, administrators need the means
to measure and evaluate the impact of curricula, new practices and
professional development on academic achievement. For unless the
quality of classroom instruction and programs can be improved
significantly, students will be unlikely to meet the high standards now
Fortunately, significant help is available in the form of a
relatively new tool known as value-added assessment. Because
value-added approach isolates the impact of instruction on student
learning, it provides detailed information at the classroom level. Its
rich diagnostic data can be used to improve teaching and student
learning. It can be the basis for much-needed improvement in the
calculation of adequate yearly progress. In time, once teachers and
administrators grow comfortable with its fairness, the value-added also
may serve as the foundation for an accountability system at the level
of individual educators.
Used by a growing number of states, value-added assessment provides
a new way to measure teaching and learning. Value-added uses the annual
test scores that are now being collected for students and analyzes them
to reveal the progress students are making each year. In its focus on
growth rather than solely on levels of absolute achievement,
value-added broadens our understanding of the contribution instruction
makes to student learning. While family income remains the best
predictor of absolute achievement, good instruction is 10 to 20 times
more powerful in predicting student growth.
By following individual students over time, value-added accounts for
student background characteristics over which schools have no control
and that tend to bias test results. And in what is perhaps its most
unique contribution, value-added enables educators and the public to
identify not only the progress made by students but also the extent to
which individual teachers, schools and districts have contributed to it.
Under the value-added approach, test scores are projected for
students and then compared to the scores they actually achieve at the
end of the school year. Classroom scores that exceed projected values
suggest that the instruction is highly effective. Conversely, scores
that are mostly below projections suggest that the instruction is
But at the same time this approach considers student-related
factors, such as the pattern of prior test scores, both those of the
individual student as well as those of other students in the same
class. If a student’s present performance is below projected scores
while students with comparable previous academic history in the same
classes have done well, this is evidence of the student effect—external
variables such as the home environment that are beyond the control of
teachers and schools—that can be ruled beyond the range of a teacher’s
Value-added provides educators with two patterns of instruction that
characterize their classrooms: which students are the focus of their
instruction (previously low, average or high achieving) and how
effective their instruction has been in providing students with a
year’s worth of growth from wherever they started in September.
Armed with these data, teachers can meet regularly to discuss how to
change their instructional patterns in desired directions. The ensuing
conversations end the isolation of teachers and teaching and, when
coupled with strong instructional leadership to guide educators through
a process of study, schools can be transformed into true learning
While adequate yearly progress measures show only a vague snapshot
of performance from year to year and offer no information about where
strengths and weaknesses lie, value-added methodologies, characterized
by a focus on individual students and longitudinal cohorts, are instead
helping educators close the achievement gap, manage and evaluate
innovations and improve teaching and learning. The following examples
illustrate how superintendents in three different school districts have
used value-added to transform their instructional practice and raise
Value-added assessment has been in place in Tennessee since the
early 1990s when it was created by William Sanders, who was then a
statistician at University of Tennessee. Schools use the Tennessee
Value-Added Assessment System to identify where their achievement gaps
exist and address student needs more expeditiously. One example is the
Maryville Middle School in Maryville, Tenn., whose principal, Joel
Giffin, used value-added data to improve the school’s academic program
and help underperforming students make significant gains.
Giffin, now in his 33rd year at the school, believes the analysis
and disaggregation of value-added data allowed him to see that 7th
grade math performance was not what it should have been for 20 of the
lowest-achieving students. The statewide benchmark was 15 scale score
points, while these students made a 12.5 scale gain in their test
scores. Scale scores are common units of measure on a standardized test.
Giffin and his staff identified five characteristics shared by these
students: 1) low socioeconomic status; 2) one-parent families; 3) lack
of adults at home at the end of the school day; 4) lack of money for
school supplies; and 5) lack of help or positive reinforcement with
“While we recognized that we could not change one through three,”
Giffin says of the five factors, “we felt we could change four and
five. Four was simple. Money was donated once people understood the
need. Five was harder because it meant we had to do things differently.”
The principal’s mission, then, was to change the school to fit the
needs of the students. “We created during school time the same support
for these students as we would our own kids. We added a daily math
class to help them complete homework, provided tutoring, gave
encouragement and praise and made sure that they went to class prepared
and feeling confident,” he says.
The results were outstanding. The value-added gains of these
students were 360 percent of the national norm compared to the state
benchmark of 100 percent of the national norm. This was the greatest
gain ever of any group of students at Maryville Middle School.
Indeed, through Giffin’s use of value-added and the myriad of
reforms he implemented, the Maryville Middle School now ranks as
Tennessee’s top-scoring middle school on value-added assessment. The
10-year schoolwide value-added score for the school is 144 percent of
the national norm.
In Ohio, a value-added pilot project was started two years ago with
funding from the Battelle for Kids Foundation. Seventy-eight school
districts now are using value-added assessment to better manage program
James Mahoney, a former school superintendent who leads the pilot,
says value-added assessment has been used in multiple ways by the
participating districts. (See related story, page xx)
In one school district in Westerville, Ohio, value-added measures
showed that two elementary schools were consistently outperforming the
others in 4th grade science. The superintendent, George Tombaugh,
visited the two schools to talk to the 4th grade teachers and
discovered that because none of these teachers was particularly strong
in science, they decided that each would specialize in only one segment
of the curriculum. The teacher with the comparatively greater subject
expertise then taught that segment to all the 4th grade students.
Tombaugh now is exploring the possibility of replicating this practice
districtwide. Another Ohio district, Riverview Local Schools, piloted a
new 4th and 5th grade math program in two of its elementary schools.
The district used value-added measures to assess the growth of students
in this program as compared to the growth of students in the old
program to determine which program was more successful.
A third Ohio district, Miami East, was interested in alternative
programs for its elementary schools and investigated programs that
worked for students with similar characteristics. The district used the
value-added “school search” feature to find similar schools that were
getting high levels of progress. When they discovered they were
matching the progress of the other schools, they decided to keep their
Sharon Kirk, superintendent of the DuBois Area School District in
Dubois, Pa., described how her 4,500-student district was making
advantageous use of value-added in testimony before the state Senate
Education Committee, saying, “The best part of value-added is its
measure of teacher and school effectiveness and the resulting potential
for increased student achievement.”
The DuBois district was among the original 32 Pennsylvania districts
in 2002 to implement value-added. The state board of education quickly
saw the benefit and voted to require its use in all 501 districts
statewide by 2007.
Kirk says she has been impressed by the difference between
value-added measures and No Child Left Behind’s adequate yearly
In her testimony to state legislators in March 2004, she used a
simple analogy: “Imagine a busload of children arriving at a park to
play baseball. The aim of the event is to teach every child to hit a
triple. As the children arrive their individual abilities are very
different. Some children can already hit a double while others are
having difficulty even managing the steps on the bus. All the children
make progress during this event. Many of the students who could hit a
double now hit triples. Some of the students who had trouble with the
steps on the bus have worked very hard and can now hit a double.
“How would you gauge the most successful students, or who made
adequate progress? If hitting a triple is the measure of success,
students with the least progress may be considered the only successful
ones even though they have made little progress because they started so
far ahead. Those children who worked hard and perhaps made the most
progress will be judged as failures.”
Making this distinction is important to teachers and one reason why teachers in DuBois have come to trust value-added measures.
This trust helps when it comes time to measure the effectiveness of
particular teaching practices or programs. Kirk says she and her staff
developed a districtwide instructional improvement plan after reviewing
two years of school-level data. The value-added assessment system
provided each school with data about progress using proficiency levels
and quintiles for math and reading.
In one DuBois school this data revealed that two different cohorts
of students were performing in an identical pattern in math for two
years in a row. “What that told us is that with two entirely different
groups of students we were getting similar achievement. In both years
we were failing our top students. Their scores were well above average
and certainly proficient but their progress was not,” Kirk says.
This information provided the impetus for change. The principal of
Dubois Middle School, Daniel Hawkins, minces no words in his praise of
the new approach. “Value-added has been the No. 1 most positive
motivator for my staff as well as for me. … It has been a catalyst in
our schoolwide improvement program.”
The DuBois Area School District has eight elementary buildings, some
highly successful and above the norm. Kirk believes that the only way
you can have 100 percent proficiency is to implement sound
instructional practice, which can be greatly enriched by value-added
Value-added assessment by itself does not improve student
achievement. As these examples illustrate, only when educators
understand its power and use what they learn to guide instruction and
professional development will schools begin to see significant learning
gains in their students.
More educators and policymakers are recognizing the benefit of
value-added assessment. In addition to Ohio, Pennsylvania and
Tennessee, new legislation in Arkansas and Minnesota calls for
implementing a form of value-added measurement, and the state school
boards associations in Iowa and New York are piloting a value-added
program this year. Dallas and Seattle are the most prominent urban
districts that use the value-added approach, along with several smaller
districts in Colorado, Florida and North Carolina.
In coming years, value-added’s increasing popularity may result in three significant changes for public schools nationwide.
First, we will see the production of subject and grade-specific
professional development modules to help educators change their
instructional practices to improve student learning. Parallel efforts
using simulated data will be undertaken in the colleges and
universities where students who desire to become teachers are educated.
Second, with some projections showing that virtually all schools
will fail to meet their NCLB targets in the next 4-5 years, significant
efforts already are under way to amend how AYP is calculated.
Value-added could play a key part in this process by providing schools
with an alternative measure that would be able to identify which
schools failing AYP in the current year were on a trajectory of growth
that would get their students to proficiency by a later grade.
We call this alternative “Growth to Standards.” It should be
politically viable because it does not abandon the federal government’s
commitment to ensure that all students reach proficiency.
Finally, as teachers and administrators come to appreciate its many
strengths, value-added assessment will serve as the foundation for an
accountability system at the level of individual educators. Studies of
value-added models, such as one recently released by RAND, already are
struggling with this question.
The RAND review, “Evaluating Value-Added Models for Teacher
Accountability,” concluded that the effect of teachers on student
learning was real, it could be large and it persists for years beyond
the year in which it is first evident. While the authors cautioned
against using value-added for high-stakes personnel decisions until
further research is conducted, they felt value-added models “might
actually provide less-biased and more precise assessments of teacher
effects.” As long as “test-based accountability remains an instrument
of education policy,” they recommend value-added assessment should be
given serious consideration even in light of its limitations (for
individual level accountability).”
The timing for the introduction of value-added could not be better.
Although knowing that our schools are not worse than they were 20 years
ago may provide comfort in the face of intense school bashing, it does
not follow that our schools are good enough for the 21st century. An
open society facing the twin challenges of terrorism and the fiercely
competitive global economy of the Information Age requires citizens and
workers who can use technology, think critically and solve problems. If
America is to remain a democracy anchored by a strong and stable middle
class, then our schools must be able to educate all our children, not
merely the top 20 percent, to unprecedentedly high standards.
This will involve difficult change that necessitates overhauling the
entire system rather than fixing a few parts. Although critics point to
teachers’ unions or to poor instructional leadership from
administrators or to government regulations, it is critical to
understand that no single factor is to blame. In simplest terms, the
nation’s economy has changed much faster than our schools. It is now
time to move our schools to their next level of excellence. Value-added
will play a key role in this effort.
Ted Hershberg is executive director of Operation Public Education
and a professor of public policy and history at the University of
Pennsylvania, 3701 Chestnut St., Suite 6E, Philadelphia, PA 19104.
E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org. Virginia Adams Simon is the program’s associate director and Barbara Lea-Kruger is director of development and communications.