Controversial Scores Put Numbers On North Central Florida Teachers’ Success

By on February 26th, 2014
The superintendent of Putnam County's school district, Phyllis Criswell (left), and school board attorney Jim Padgett (right), sit during a school board meeting.

Wade Millward / WUFT News

The superintendent of Putnam County's school district, Phyllis Criswell (left), and school board attorney Jim Padgett (right), sit during a school board meeting.

Using the state’s controversial assessment for scoring teachers’ success, a Jacksonville newspaper has ranked an Alachua County school and Marion County school among Florida’s worst 25 schools and one Citrus County school in the top 25.

Hundreds of thousands of scores used to measure teachers’ effect on student learning were released after the Florida Times-Union sued the state’s Department of Education to use the records under Florida’s open-records law.

The Times-Union published its findings Monday, though readers must now have a subscription to access some of the information.

The Academy of Environmental Science in Crystal River ranked 14th among the 25 highest VAM scoring schools, according to the Times-Union.

Silver River Mentoring and Instruction, a privately owned alternative school in Ocala, ranked 18th among the lowest scoring schools, according to the Times-Union.

In August, Alachua County’s Sweetwater Branch Academy Elementary closed after receiving its third consecutive F-grade. It was listed as No. 19 among the 25 bottom VAM scoring schools by the Times-Union.

These value-added model scores account for almost half of a teacher’s overall evaluation, affecting hiring, promotions and raises. The VAM scores compare how students were expected to perform on the FCAT, using previous FCAT scores, to how well they actually performed, according to the Florida Department of Education.

The system also compares student performance with their peers’ at different schools in the county, according to the department.

The release of the scores has been called inappropriate by some educators.

While Silver River’s score is among the lowest, the school is a valuable resource as one of Marion County’s three alternative schools for at-risk students, Marion County School District spokesman Kevin Christian said.

Teachers’ scores are one part of their overall evaluation and shouldn’t be used to judge and rank schools. It’d be like judging and ranking schools based on how one student performed on one test, Christian said.

“You’ve got to look at the whole picture here,” he said. “VAM scores are not meant to be considered on their own, whether it’s a public school, private school or alternative school.”

In Putnam County and Duval County, slightly more than half of the teachers received below-average scores, according to the Times-Union.

“It’s something that will cause a lot of confusion among parents and the public when they look at teachers’ performance,” Putnam County School District Superintendent Phyllis Criswell said.

Duval County teachers contributed about 1.5 percent less to student progress than expected, and 57 percent of Duval County schools scored below average.

In Putnam County, 59 percent of schools performed below average.  Putnam teachers’ success rating was about 2 percent below average, according to the findings.

Helen Muir, superintendent for curriculum and instruction at the Putnam County School District, said that she doesn’t believe releasing the scores for the public to see is appropriate, seeing as it’s difficult to get people to understand how the model works.

“The concern is that VAM is just a mathematical construction that is being used to show how a teacher does,” Muir said.

The system isn’t a fair comparison of performance among counties because students come from different backgrounds, Muir said.

Different income levels affect student performances, she said. In Putnam County, a 25.5 percent poverty rate, compared to the state average of 15.6 percent, is believed to be part of why students don’t come to school ready to learn and then perform worse on the FCAT.

“Many students come to school hungry,” she said.  “Many of our students are homeless. They come from families where taking the time to develop a child’s language just isn’t possible because they are out there trying to survive.”

Superintendent Criswell said about 78 percent of the district’s students are on free or reduced lunch. It takes teachers more time to catch up to their counterparts in better-off counties.

“Right now, we are preparing for another round of FCAT testing,” she said. “We’re trying to make sure these kids come to the test ready to take it and with the right attitude.”

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