Monday, April 14, 2008

State Press Parties Mislead On School Facts

Get ready for one of those sham celebrations manufactured by the Tennessee Department of Education to mark alleged improvements in student academic performance.

While talking about how the state will toughen up its standards for the state’s school districts, state educational bureaucrats recently downgraded the score that it will take to be judged proficient in reading and language arts.

This means that there will possibly be yet another one of those misleading major announcement that the percentage of students achieving proficiency went up again; however, there will be no mention of the fact that it took place because fewer correct answers will be needed to be scored proficient.

In The Top Five, Really?

When compared to the other 49 states, Tennessee Department of Education claims – with a straight face, no less - that our state’s students are among the top 5 in the U.S. in eighth grade math and reading, fourth grade reading and math, and high school reading.

It’s an incredible claim, especially when the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) ranks Tennessee #40 and puts its percentage of proficient students in the range of about 25 per cent. In case your math proficiency has been certified by Tennessee DOE officials, we point out that there is a difference of about 65 percent between what the state officials say and what the independent national test says.

One educational researcher issued what he calls the “Pangloss Index,” named for the character in Candide who, despite all evidence to the contrary, always argued that all was well. On that index, Tennessee’s results rank it as the 11th best state in student achievement. Again, that compared with the NAEP ranking of 40th in student achievement, and more disturbing, since 1992, test scores have been relatively been flat.

No Cause To Celebrate

Speaking of misguided celebrations, we were stupefied by a recent well-publicized report that said that the Memphis school district, among the 50 largest districts, is among the top five in graduating more students than the suburban districts surrounding it.

That sure got our attention, and we were ready to pull the bull horn out of the storage closet. Then, we realized that if the America’s Promise report is correct, Memphis City Schools increased its graduation rate more than 27 percent in only one year.

As a result, we put the bull horn back in its place, and we were left wondering why the Gates Foundation continues to fund this kind of misleading research.


Anonymous said...

Actually, on a national level, the NAEP scores have been going up every year.


fieldguidetomemphis said...

The problem is multifaceted:

There are so many ways of reporting how students are doing, and very little incentive for actually doing it accurately or in a standardized fashion.

The critical component of student performance is STANDARDS. Currently there are no standards for the standards - for test scores, for safe harbor, and for reporting graduation and dropout rates.

To be in compliance with No Child Left Behind, states use their own state tests, not the NAEP to measure student achievement. Students have historically been required to answer approximately 1/3 of questions correctly on the TCAP to be considered proficient - this is the hurdle that students must jump over. So when we say that about 80% of MCS students and about 90% of SCS students are proficient, this is what we mean.

No Child Left Behind provides a disincentive for states to set rigorous standards for their students because the failure to comply comes with serious repercussions, like school closings, principal reassignment and state takeover.

The NAEP is given to a representative sample of students throughout the US, and it shows a disparity between states who do and don't peg their state tests to the national test - Tennessee being one of the worst offenders. Scores on the state and national exams that are more closely aligned indicate that the states have written their own exams to reflect the rigor of the NAEP, which is considered to be the gold standard for measuring student achievement.

Time Magazine issued a fantastic report last year demonstrating the gap between state and national tests.

Next, there is a big problem with reporting graduation rates. Margaret Spelling has taken a firm stand in favor of standardizing the way that graduation and dropout rates are reported across the US.

There are so many ways - the Cumulative Promotion Index, the National Center for Education Statistics (also called the Leaver rate), the Basic Completion Ratio, the Greene Method (named for the researcher at the Manhattan Institute), the Cohort Rate, the Grade-to-Grade promotion rate... Ideally we would be able to track students - even those who change schools or move - to determine if they graduated on time. However, given that in Memphis, 1 in 3 students change schools during the school year at least once for reasons other than grade promotion (which also highly correlates with dropping out of school), it's difficult to keep track of students nationwide. We're a mobile bunch in this country these days.

Tennessee uses this formula for graduation (from the Tennessee Department of Education):

1. On time regular graduates are non-special education students who receive a regular diploma within 4 years and a summer (or special education students who receive a regular diploma within 5 years and a summer.
2. Other graduates include students receiving special education diplomas, certificates of attendance or GEDs.
3. Dropouts for the graduating class = 12th grade dropouts for graduation year + 11th grade dropouts for 1 year past + 10th grade dropouts for 2 years past + 9th grade dropouts for 3 years past.

The conversation that the student achievement/graduation quandary must start is this: What does a high school diploma mean these days? Is a diploma enough? Some researchers feel that a college degree is the new high school diploma.

It is clear that annual income correlates with educational attainment - that the more education a person has, the higher income s/he can expect. Additionally, children born to parents with more education - especially mothers more education - fare much better in school and in life.

Ultimately this is a question of public confidence in public schools.

Public schools have become the refuge of students from families in poverty and low-income families (below 100% FPL and between 100-200% FPL). The percent of students receiving Free or Reduced Price Lunches has increased dramatically since 1970 when only 1 in 5 public students were considered Economically Disadvantaged. Now 2 in 3 public school students are considered ED. In Memphis, the majority of students receive Free or Reduced Price Lunches and nearly all students are Title I - alongside our thriving private and parochial school systems (who are not accountable to NCLB) with soaring graduation rates and enviable college acceptance rates.

I'm really looking forward to reading the CA's series on school segregation in Memphis and Shelby County. I hope they cover segregation not only by race but by socioeconomic status, which ultimately matters more.

Smart City Consulting said...

I'm for putting you two guys on a committee to draw up some recommendations for developing the kind of reliable data that seems to be lacking at MCS.

Anonymous said...

Thanks FieldGuide, Absolutely on target with every point you make.

I still think unschooling offers greater hope than schooling ;-)


fieldguidetomemphis said...

I would love to be on such a committee, Smart City. Please email me when one is formed. Seriously.

As for the unschooling point: this is quite interesting.

Unschooling the Grace Llewellyn/John Holt way is truly about learning for the sake of learning. Their point is not that traditional schooling is bad, but that one-size-fits-all doesn't work for every student. Learning must have meaning and be connected to tangible outcomes for students. They have to see that the amount of time that they spend in school will translate into jobs, income and work that matters and uses their talents and skills.

The problem with un-schooling or de-schooling, especially in the Mid-South is that it is a part of opting out - of divesting from - the public school system that is such a critical, fundamental part of our local community and our national infrastructure. Public schools are as American as apple pie, and yet they are being undermined by private and parochial schooling and by homeschooling.

Schools have been, are and can be the center of the community. Many students spend more time with their teachers and peers than they do with their own parents, and if the concern from parents is that they want better for their kids and thus are sending them to private or other schools, then they need to be more closely involved with their local public schools.

The height of participation in Parent-Teacher Organizations was in the 1950s. Now locally and nationally, far fewer homes have school-aged children present, so fewer adults are in contact with the generation of kids in school.

I think that rather than opting out of public schools, the question we need to be exploring is if it is possible to un-school while attending public schools? It is a national tragedy that recess time, theater/music time, physical education time, extracurricular-supervised time is being eradicated from the school day. Children are tested to death (hello TCAP week) and we're not even sure what the results of the tests mean...

There are good models and best practices and superb examples of public education at its best in the U.S. We need to assess what has been done and what has worked, and what can work given our local assets and needs.

Maybe I'll run for school superintendent. Just kidding.