Legerdemain: Can We Trust the State Test Scores? and, Does it Matter? Shouldn’t We Ask: Why Are Some Schools Succeeding and Others Struggling?

Are increasing standardized test scores an affirmation of educational policy? “Proof” that teachers are more or less effective? Or, evidence that kids are learning more? Maybe an elaborate exercise in statistical legerdemain?

The August 14th State Ed presser begins, “Students statewide made significant progress in math [31.2 to 35.8%) … Students made slight progress in ELA [31.3 to 31.4%]”

To put it another way 64.2% of students on the math test and 68.6% on the ELA test scored at the level 2 or below, “below proficient,” or, under the new nomenclature, scored at the “partial proficiency level.” Do we call level 1 “approaching partial proficiency?” BTW, is “1984” on the Common Core reading list? The new definitions are prime examples of “Doublespeak,” [a language that deliberately disguises, distorts, or reverses the meaning of words].

On August 17th Susan Edelman, in the NY Post called into question the validity of the test scores,

State officials touted increases in scores on tough Common Core exams this year but failed to reveal that they had lowered the number of right answers needed to pass half the exams.

The state Education Department dropped the number of raw points needed to hit proficiency levels in six of the 12 English and math exams given to students in grades 3 to 8, officials acknowledged.

The following day, Geoff Decker on Chalkbeat reported,

… state officials took the unusual step on Monday of posting a memo to its web site that explains why they lowered the number of correct questions needed to pass some of this year’s state reading and math tests. Officials characterized the adjustments as routine and necessary to maintain a consistent level of difficulty over time.

See state memo here: http://www.p12.nysed.gov/irs/ela-math/equatingexplained.html

There is good reason to be skeptical – from 2006 to 2010 scores increased significantly each year, as questions arose, the Regents asked Harvard professor Daniel Koretz to investigate the scores. The Report found that the test questions were highly predictable and the test far too easy. The implication was clear: the state knew exactly what it was doing – the only victims were the kids.

As the questions about the current test increased the state continued to respond, Commissioner King, on his News and Notes wrote,

There was significant progress in math across all types of schools and districts and all student subgroups. However, the results were flatter in English Language Arts. There was only slight progress in ELA, with variation among schools and districts – even significant variation among schools within the same district. In particular, although there was an increase in student scores New York City and other higher need and larger school districts (e.g., Yonkers), there were year-to-year decreases in our lower need school districts.

The King post includes a scatterplot, which the commissioner claims,

… although there is a relationship between poverty and performance, there are exceptions at all levels of wealth. Just as there are schools that perform above and below the statewide proficiency level at lower levels of wealth, there are schools that perform above and below the statewide proficiency level at higher levels of wealth

Demography may not be destiny; however, breaking the paradigm is an enormous challenge, The obstacles may not be insurmountable, some kids manage to swim the moats and vault the walls. and navigate the gangs and the cops.

King goes on,

These results make clear that those who claim that demography is destiny and that we cannot improve teaching and learning until we have first fixed poverty are simply mistaken.

This is not to imply that poverty is an unimportant factor – it is extremely important, for all of us. But the idea that poverty or family circumstances outside of school are insurmountable obstacles for teaching and learning is a fallacy. As educators, we should all be active in the national discourse on issues of inequality and how best to expand opportunity for all. However, we must commit ourselves to use the time we have with our students in school as effectively as possible and to do all we can to ensure that education helps to shape a path out of poverty. Our colleagues have done it. Our students have done it. We can do it.

We need to understand the factors that help a school achieve better learning outcomes for high needs students (higher poverty / higher performance schools). Conversely, we also need to understand the reasons why other schools do not perform as well as their demographic peers, despite having an abundance of resources and wealth (lower poverty / lower performance schools). What are the policy, leadership, and instructional practices that produce great results for our kids that can be echoed and expanded across the state? What are the educational investments – from high-quality pre-K to expanded learning time to community schools partnerships providing wrap-around services to socioeconomically integrated magnet schools – we need to make as a state in order to accelerate improvement?

The commissioner links to a listing of schools, highest to lowest, schools with the significant percentage of Title 1 eligible students (on the far right column),


As I peruse the list I see school after school that are screened, the school has academic admission criteria, they select their students, other schools have high percentages of Asian students (not on the chart – the neighborhood tells the story).

If we seek schools in high poverty zip codes, alas, we don’t find any high achieving schools. When the commissioner writes, “We need to understand the factors that help a school achieve better learning outcomes for high needs students (higher poverty / higher performance schools).” the answer cannot be handpick your student body – which as we know is the unwritten policy in many charter schools.

I agree with the commissioner – we do have to seek out why some high poverty schools do significantly better than others. We should examine school leadership, the school staff, external community supports, and delve into each one – i.e., the experience of the school leader as a teacher and as a school leader, the educational background, the experience of the staff, staff stability/mobility, and sensitive issues, does the race/ethnicity of the school leader/staff impact student achievement?

This wealth of data begs for an analysis:

* All teachers have a score on the HEDI scale (highly effective, effective, developing and ineffective) – does a school’s median teacher HEDI score correlate with pupil achievement?

* Are high HEDI score teachers clustered in high achieving schools/school districts, and, the converse, are low HEDI score teachers clustered in low achieving schools/school districts?

* Especially in NYC, do high HEDI score teachers move to higher achieving schools and what is the impact on the lower achieving school that they left?

and, a crucial question: to what extent is pupil academic growth based on teacher quality, on socio-economic factors and how much simply random?

Some of these questions may have uncomfortable answers: for the commissioner and for teachers – it is time to put ideology aside and look at the data – too much research is advocacy research – we can tell the outcomes by looking at the source of the report.

Too much emphasis is based on the Common Core, tests and test scores, and not enough on the “whys,” why are schools making progress, or why not?

Defending ideological “iron laws” from Washington or Albany is a disservice to families, children, principals and teachers – we learn from what happens in classrooms.

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