EVAAS errors lead to wrong NC teachers being promised thousands of dollars in bonuses

*note updated with correction at end*

A coding error reportedly made by the company that produces EVAAS value-added measures for North Carolina schools has resulted in the wrong 3rd grade teachers being informed that they had earned thousands of dollars in bonus pay.

The error means an unknown number of North Carolina school districts were unable to meet their statutory obligation to pay the bonuses before the end of January–and that districts have to figure out the best way to break the bad news to teachers who were counting on the additional income.

It also promises to make the controversial practice of rewarding a handful of teachers for student test growth even more divisive than it already is.

In a January message to Human Resources Directors across the state, NCDPI’s Director of Educator Recruitment and Support Dr. Tom Tomberlin explained that, due to a coding error, “some teachers who were previously identified as eligible for a state or LEA bonus are no longer eligible to receive one or both bonuses.”

Tomberlin added that he understood teachers would be disappointed to learn they wouldn’t receive a bonus, and that his office would work to “answer any questions about the data corrections.”

I reached out to ask Dr. Tomberlin how many teachers were impacted by the error. At the time of publication Tomberlin hadn’t responded.

I also contacted SAS to inquire how the error had occurred and how many teachers it had affected. SAS, too, didn’t reply.

The Cary-based SAS software company has provided the EVAAS value-added measure for North Carolina schools for more than a decade. The tool is intended to show how effective educators are by measuring precisely what value each teacher adds to their students’ learning. It relies solely on standardized test data to make that determination.  

EVAAS is broadly unpopular with educators, many of whom believe that using a single high-stakes test to measure the value teachers add to their students’ learning is ridiculous.

North Carolina’s EVAAS teacher bonus scheme was conceived by Senator Phil Berger and implemented by state lawmakers in the 2016 budget, offering teachers the chance to earn as much as $9500 in additional pay by being in the top 25% for EVAAS growth in their district and state.  Although they have since been broadened to include other grade levels and subject areas, the bonuses were initially intended as a way of improving 3rd grade reading results after the 2013 Read to Achieve legislation had failed to do so.

Three years later, test results indicate the bonus program is also not improving student learning:

The results are consistent with research on the impact of financial incentives in education which finds that, not only do bonuses fail to increase student achievement, in some cases they even decrease it.  

Introducing a spirit of competition among educators that you are already underpaying isolates teachers and damages the relationships that are critical to maintaining a positive school culture where collaboration and learning can flourish.  Furthermore, paying a bonus to a 3rd grade teacher but ignoring the impact that educators in grades K-2 had on the growth of the same children, or the work that the media specialist, the EC teacher, the school counselor, or the administrators did to help those students be successful is highly problematic.

Now imagine receiving a letter in December saying that you’d earned bonuses worth several thousand dollars. You make plans to pay off medical bills, you go ahead and book a spring break flight–maybe even quit a part-time job in anticipation of the windfall. Then weeks later you’re told that you actually didn’t earn anything–but the teacher next door did. What’s that going to do to collaborative spirit?

The error in question was reportedly made by SAS but not discovered by the software company. Rather, school personnel noticed discrepancies and raised red flags, which led to DPI asking districts to put the brakes on paying out 3rd grade bonuses until the problem could be straightened out.

The fact that SAS wasn’t the first to notice the error raises important questions about whether this is the first time the wrong teachers were identified as having earned the bonuses.

The mixup also presents a great opportunity to revisit whether this is the best way for North Carolina to be spending $39 million a year.

Update: Keung Hui of the Raleigh News and Observer reports the data error was made by DPI and not by SAS. That conflicts with information I received earlier in the week from a reliable source, but if DPI is publicly owning the mistake it seems likely to be true.

I’ll reiterate that, well in advance of publication, I reached out to both SAS and DPI’s Tom Tomberlin (as well as DPI’s Chief Business Officer Alexis Schauss) for clarification on how the error had occurred. None of them responded.

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