Wednesday, April 13, 2016

Repressed Aggression or Why I Hate VAM

You can call me a Negative Nellie if you want to, but I hate a lot of things about American education in the 21st century (i.e. Common Core, standardized testing, narrow curriculum, No-Excuses charter schools, NCLB, corporatist education “deform”, value-added measurements [VAM], etc.). However, out of all of those things, I despise VAM the most. I HATE VAM! I cannot shout it from the rooftops loud enough. Maybe one day soon I will have enough clout to help abolish it from North Carolina. I have read a lot about VAM both inside and outside of class and I agree with Thornton, Kohn, Ravitch, and every other critic that it is unfair, invalid, and unreliable. Calling VAM “value-added” is a misnomer, and a cynical joke. There is nothing of value added to the evaluation process if the instrument used is unfair, invalid, and unreliable. How can a teacher be off-the-charts amazing one year and off-the-charts dismal the next year? The better question is how come a teacher is punished for the characteristics of his or her students (the “value-added measurements”), over which he or she has zero control? A teacher cannot choose the composition of his or her students.

I have no objection to evaluation as a concept; in fact, I embrace it. I cannot know what I am doing right and fix what I am doing wrong without feedback. However, I do have a problem with being held accountable for things that are out of my control, such as that proverbial elephant in the room, poverty. Educational researchers are well aware of the adverse effects that poverty can have on a child’s educational success (Berliner, 2005; Grodsky, Warren, & Felts, 2008; Kohn, 2000; Stern, 2014). There is no question that Western North Carolina has a high poverty rate. In some counties and communities in this region, all students are given free or reduced lunch regardless of need because there are so many needy kids in that district or school (Spencer, 2015). To the proponents of VAM, answer me this: What regression algorithm can turn a white rural poor kid from WNC and from a single parent home whose mother works three part-time jobs and can only keep the lights on every other month into a white suburban upper-middle class kid from New England from a two parent home whose father has one full-time job with benefits and that child has never missed a meal or whose parents never had to decide between bringing that child to the doctor or going to work?

The bottom line is that children are not standardized. They are not interchangeable cogs in a machine nor are they blank slates. They are individual human beings who each bring their unique life stories with them to class every day. What regression algorithm can distill out every mitigating circumstance in a child’s life and education and determine how his or her experience in my classroom affected that child’s learning? I do not think that even the Wizard of Oz can answer that question.


Berliner, D. C. (2005, July 29). Our impoverished view of educational reform. Teachers College Record, 1-64.

Grodsky, E., Warren, J. R., & Felts, E. (2008). Testing and social stratification in American education. Annual Review of Sociology, 34, 385-404. Retrieved October 10, 2015, from

Kohn, A. (2000, September 27). Standardized testing and its victims. Retrieved from

Spencer, A. (2015, October 22). Praxis Project Interview. (A. L. DeMarco, Interviewer)

Stern, G. (2014, April 12). Education analyst Diane Ravitch: Tests punish out-of-the-box thinkers. Retrieved from

Thornton, H. J. (2014, Winter). Middle level teacher quality in the midst of the rush to Common Core: What do principals think of test-based teacher quality? North Carolina Middle School Association Journal, 28(1), 1-13.

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