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Whether a Tennessee teacher's bosses consider her good for kids, whether she's deserving of tenure and — increasingly — a better salary depend heavily on one number.

It's a simple digit on a scale with 1 at the bottom and 5 at the top. But behind it lies a decades-old formula, now coming into vogue on the national education scene, designed to predict how much a student should learn versus how much he did learn.

A University of Tennessee statistician designed the formula as a challenge to an article he read that suggested teachers absolutely could not be evaluated by measuring their students' learning gains. Now, the Ohio, Pennsylvania and North Carolina departments of education and individual school districts in at least 15 other states can do just that.

Back in Tennessee, which uses the formula punitively, teachers are starting to get mad. Lawsuit-filing mad. There are two pending now that allege the formula is too volatile, costing teachers money and being applied unfairly.

William L. Sanders, inventor of the famed Tennessee Value-Added Assessment System, isn't particularly concerned — only sad, he said, to see the resurgence of political issues that almost killed his formula from the start.

After the formula was icily dismissed by the Tennessee Department of Education for years, Sanders saw it embraced by then-Gov. Ned McWherter. Tennessee lagged in student achievement but became a national model for student data collection. North Carolina-based analytics giant SAS hired Sanders and established a section devoted to breaking down standardized test scores to evaluate teachers.

Dismisses criticism

As some Tennessee leaders begin to backpedal on some of those punitive measures — for instance, teachers' licenses no longer will be yanked for bad TVAAS scores — Sanders dismisses claims of volatility. Because it includes years of data, the formula adjusts for one-offs, such as a smart kid who bombs on a testing day or a teacher who cheats to get a bonus. It overcomes measures that track achievement alone, such as students' race or family income, he said.

Sanders, 71, moved to Columbia, Tenn., with his wife and research partner, June Rivers, and retired last year. He said the current arguments about TVAAS sound like what he heard back in the early 1980s. Those almost made him drop it and refocus on his primary job, running a statistical and computing services unit that primarily served UT's Department of Agriculture.

"I thought once we had fair scoreboards for parents and the public to see, the public demand for measurement would sustain itself," he said. "Parents are only worried about right now for their kids. And when their kids are through, they're through with it."

Sanders said he hasn't advised Tennessee Education Commissioner Kevin Huffman or Gov. Bill Haslam on policy, and SAS works with Tennessee purely on data, not policy, said John White, director of the company's Education Value-Added Assessment System section. Tennessee pays $1.7 million annually to SAS to calculate scores and put them online. How states choose to use the data varies.

Tennessee's largest teachers' union used to be virtually silent on TVAAS-based measures affecting teachers, but it recently came out swinging in state board of education meetings and in the lawsuits, so much so that Huffman is accusing them of flip-flopping on the topic.

Tennessee Education Association President Gera Summerford contends there was no talk of scores being used for licenses and bonuses when TEA signed on to the successful application for a federal $500 million Race to the Top education grant, which outlined a new evaluation system. Formerly, the scores were kept between principals and teachers to help with professional coaching or individual students' learning plans.

Teachers enter fray

But even teachers staying out of the political hullabaloo are becoming concerned as more districts roll out state-mandated performance pay plans. Those include Metro Nashville's Lesley Thompson, who teaches honors geometry to the smartest Meigs Middle Magnet eighth-graders. Because they scored almost perfectly in seventh grade and again in eighth grade, Thompson's learning gains score was a 3 last year.

Now that Metro is writing a bonus plan based on those scores, she's taking notice and has put in preliminary transfer papers. Thompson loves Meigs, her students and her colleagues, she said.

But as a mathematician, she knows a losing equation when she sees it.

Reach Heidi Hall at 615-726-5977 and on Twitter @HeidiHallTN.

ABOUT 'TESTING GROUND'

No state in the nation is moving as quickly on changing education policy as Tennessee, which traditionally has lagged in the bottom third of states for student performance. Education leaders point to the state's gains against the nation on a standardized test, but some question whether those gains are tied to punitive policies affecting teachers. This series analyzes claims on both sides.

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