How Value Added Models are Like Turds

“Why am I surrounded by statistical illiterates?” — Roger Mexico in Gravity’s Rainbow

Oops, they did it again. This weekend, the New York Times put out this profile of William Sanders, the originator of evaluating teachers using value-added models based on student standardized test results. It is statistically illiterate, uses math to mislead and intimidate, and is utterly infuriating.

Here’s the worst part:

When he began calculating value-added scores en masse, he immediately saw that the ratings fell into a “normal” distribution, or bell curve. A small number of teachers had unusually bad results, a small number had unusually good results, and most were somewhere in the middle.

And later:

Up until his death, Mr. Sanders never tired of pointing out that none of the critiques refuted the central insight of the value-added bell curve: Some teachers are much better than others, for reasons that conventional measures can’t explain.

The implication here is that value added models have scientific credibility because they look like math — they give you a bell curve, you know. That sounds sort of impressive until you remember that the bell curve is also the world’s most common model of random noise. Which is what value added models happen to be.

Just to replace the Times’s name dropping with some actual math, bell curves are ubiquitous because of the Central Limit Theorem, which says that any variable that depends on many similar-looking but independent factors looks like a bell curve, no matter what the unrelated factors are. For example, the number of heads you get in 100 coin flips. Each single flip is binary, but when you flip a coin over and over, one flip doesn’t affect the next, and out comes a bell curve. Or how about height? It depends on lots of factors: heredity, diet, environment, and so on, and you get a bell curve again. The central limit theorem is wonderful because it helps explain the world: it tells you why you see bell curves everywhere. It also tells you that random fluctuations that don’t mean anything tend to look like bell curves too.

So, just to take another example, if I decided to rate teachers by the size of the turds that come out of their ass, I could wave around a lovely bell-shaped distribution of teacher ratings, sit back, and wait for the Times article about how statistically insightful this is. Because back in the bad old days, we didn’t know how to distinguish between good and bad teachers, but the Turd Size Model™ produces a shiny, mathy-looking distribution — so it must be correct! — and shows us that teacher quality varies for reasons that conventional measures can’t explain.

Or maybe we should just rate news articles based on turd size, so this one could get a Pulitzer.