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Florida House committee discusses teacher ‘VAM’ scores, headaches

It’s unclear if there will be any proposed changes to this method for measuring teachers’ impact on their students’ performance, despite complaints.

TALLAHASSEE — Lawmakers in the Florida House discussed teacher “VAM” scores during a committee meeting Wednesday, peppering Department of Education officials with questions about how the complex method of measuring teacher performance works, and whether it’s effective.

“VAM” stands for “value-added model,” and is a way that students’ learning gains are quantified over time to measure how their teachers impact their progress. Having been removed from the way many teachers receive their evaluations, it remains important because teachers at low-performing schools can still be asked to leave those schools if their VAM scores are not up to par.

However, teachers have complained over the years that VAM is overly confusing and opaque, and is not an accurate measure of teaching ability. Some teachers, who don’t teach core academic subjects, are also given VAM scores based on school-wide averages that are out of their control.

In an effort to provide teachers with more information, the Department of Education recently launched an online portal where teachers can view how their students fared on the assessments that contributed to their VAM scores.

But more data may be needed, some lawmakers said during the meeting of the House PreK-12 Innovation Subcommittee.

Rep. Susan Valdes, D-Tampa, pointed out that while it may show students’ test scores, it does not provide a breakdown by subject.

“I would be petrified to teach in this class because I don’t know how to help these children achieve academically,” she said.

Jason Gaitanis, assistant deputy commissioner of the department, said they are open to including more information as they develop the tool.

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Additionally, critics have said that because VAM scores are released in August, that forces some teachers to leave their schools just as the academic year is beginning, disrupting classes and requiring districts to scramble for substitutes.

“Do you think districts have adequate time to make those staffing decisions?” asked Rep. Jason Fischer, R-Jacksonville.

“Yes I do,” said Melissa Ramsey, a vice chancellor in the department. “Unfortunately, I think that’s an area of growth we can have across the state. So many times ... the teachers do not know their state VAM (scores) or they have a misconception of it so there needs to be clear communication.”

Cathy Boehme, a lobbyist for the statewide teachers’ union, told lawmakers that the VAM score should always be used in concert with other factors of determining teacher effectiveness, such as their evaluations, and said teachers leaving their schools in August leaves vulnerable students without needed stability.

But the chair of the committee, Rep. Ralph Massullo, R-Lecanto, seemed hesitant to make changes to the current system, saying that teachers with low VAM scores should be removed from their classrooms in low-performing schools as soon as possible.

“You don’t want to let bad habits solidify,” he said.

No bills have been filed on this issue so far. The 2020 legislative session begins in January.