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Tuesday, September 2, 2014 |  Madison, WI: 68.0° F  Mostly Cloudy
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UW-pioneered approach is helping identify better ways to teach
Adding value, improving education
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Beth Moss: 'There's a lot of potential for value-added.
Madison is very data driven.'
Beth Moss: 'There's a lot of potential for value-added. Madison is very data driven.'

In education today, data is king. It's used to prove school effectiveness, track student achievement and even, in some cases, set teacher pay. The trick for schools is getting quality metrics and using them to assess individuals and effect positive change in the classroom.

To this end, Madison is among a growing number of school districts nationally to adopt value-added or growth-based models of assessment. The project, which began in Madison schools in 2008, measures students' growth over time and then seeks to identify what best helps them progress.

"What we're trying to do is certainly in line with what the federal administration is trying to do," says Kurt Kiefer, outgoing chief information officer and director of research and program evaluation with Madison schools. "We want to better determine what we mean when we say a school is successful. Instead of shooting from the hip, we're using data in a rigorous way."

Starting this school year, the project will begin to analyze data with respect to various demographic factors, like race, eligibility for free or reduced-price lunch, and parents' education.

The measurement was pioneered at the UW-Madison's Value Added Research Center (VARC). Fans praise it as more equitable and fair than other tests designed to measure proficiency.

"It's definitely much more useful than a single test and looks at the progress children make," says Beth Moss, vice president of the Madison school board. "There's a lot of potential for value-added. Madison is very data driven."

Milwaukee schools have collected data in a project with VARC for the past nine years. Other metropolitan districts have jumped on the value-added train, including New York and Chicago, which implemented value-added when now U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan was schools superintendent there.

"You can get the wrong idea of school performance if all you do is look at proficiency rates," says Deb Lindsey, director of research and assessment with Milwaukee Public Schools. "It's an incomplete picture."

Madison and Milwaukee are using value-added data to identify best practices. In the Milwaukee district, individual schools seek to improve overall school performance as well as that for given subjects, like math. Lindsey says Milwaukee also uses this information when considering which charter schools to renew and which schools to close.

But Milwaukee, like Madison, does not use value-added data to evaluate teacher performance.

"Teacher variables can be controversial because it indicates causality," explains Mike Christian, a VARC researcher involved with the Madison project.

But other districts do apply value-added research to teacher evaluations. One project just under way in Tampa, Fla., will use data to identify which teachers are more effective. In a new $3.4 million contract with VARC funded through the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, researchers will this year start using value-added data, plus evaluations, to make decisions on teacher tenure, promotion and dismissal. By 2013, the plan is to use these numbers to set teacher pay.

And early this month, the Los Angeles Times published value-added scores of 6,000 elementary school teachers there, causing a stir about how the data should be used.

In the two years Madison has collected and shared value-added numbers, it has seen some patterns emerging in elementary school math learning. But when compared with other districts, such as Milwaukee, Kiefer says there's much less variation in the value- added scores of schools within the Madison district.

"You don't see the variation because we do a fairly good job at making sure all staff has the same professional development," he says.

Proponents of the value-added approach agree the data would be more useful if the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction were to establish a statewide value-added system. DPI is instead developing an assessment system to look at school-wide trends and improve instruction for individual students.

In fact, Kiefer joined the department this month, as assistant superintendent in the Division for Libraries, Technology and Community Learning. State School Superintendent Tony Evers says Kiefer's appointment will help "as we continue expanding the use of data in our efforts to improve student outcomes in Wisconsin."

In Madison, the analysis set to begin this fall will help differentiate the data between subgroups and reveal what's working, and where. "If you're going to hold schools and teachers accountable, this is more fair," Kiefer says.

But some question whether value-added data truly benefits all students, or is geared toward closing the gap between high- and low-performing students.

"Will the MMSD use new assessments...of students' progress to match instruction levels with demonstrated learning levels?" asks Lorie Raihala, a Madison parent who is part of a group seeking better programming for high-achieving ninth- and 10th-graders at West High School. "So far the district has not done this."

Others are leery of adding another measurement tool. David Wasserman, a teacher at Sennett Middle School and part of a planning group pushing to open Badger Rock Middle School, a green charter (see sidebar), made national news a few years ago when he refused to administer a mandatory statewide test. He still feels that a broad, student-centered evaluation model that takes multiple assessments into account gives the best picture.

"Assessment," he says, "shouldn't drive learning."

Green school plan advances

Badger Rock Middle School, a proposed Madison green charter, in August received a big $200,000 planning grant from the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction.

The year-round school, which hopes to open next fall, proposes to start with 40 sixth-graders in a project-based learning environment at the Center for Resilient Cities facility at Rimrock and Badger roads in South Madison. In subsequent years, Badger Rock would add 40 to 50 students, who would engage in a curriculum of cultural and environmental sustainability.

The school's planning group has provided a detailed proposal to the Madison school board. Community members have until early November to weigh in before the school board votes on approving the school and gives the green light to planners to submit a charter application to the state.

One of the keys of the plan is a pledge that it won't cost the district additional money. "Considering the people who are involved, I fully expect them to back up that pledge and come through," says school board member Beth Moss. "You have some really good, creative minds behind this project, some of the best in Madison."

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