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Pay no attention to the people behind the curtain

Thursday, March 25, 2010

New test results reinforce where state focus should be: Much earlier than high school

by folkbum

Last week I noted in passing this piece from Erin Richards at the Journal Sentinel, cryptically suggesting that her story spins positively a state designation for schools that the schools have seen as a kiss of death. (I teach in one of those schools; I have seen, to paraphrase something famous, the best minds of my generation spin wildly and paranoiacally out of control.)

That story is about Milwaukee Public Schools placed into "Tier 1" or "Tier 2" status. This is a new thing mandated by the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (you might know it as the "stimulus bill") of last year. In addition to the ridiculous "race to the top" competition, that law demanded that states identify its lowest performing schools and funnel some (non-competitive) school improvement grants their way, in order to fund one of the four reform models Richards explains in her story. (As I have noted last week, too, those models do not have track records of success, but they've continued to be what the US Dept. of Education demands under No Child Left Behind.) (Also: Watch for April's Bay View Compass, where I write about this a bit more in depth.)

So the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction, using a formula that I don't fully have a handle on yet, compiled its list, and there are twelve high schools identified as the worst in the district and in the state.

Yesterday's news, though, was that Wisconsin's fourth- and eighth-grade students have fallen sharply in their reading scores on the National Assessment of Educational Progress, which is the only national standardized test and is pretty much the gold standard for measuring achievement. In addition, the NAEP found that Wisconsin's African American fourth-grade students performed worse in reading than in any other state or Washington, DC, and its eighth-grade African American students were almost at the bottom. An earlier release of data from the NAEP placed Milwaukee, specifically, near the bottom of the list among urban districts for fourth- and eighth-grade achievement. And there is no question that the bulk of Wisconsin's African American students go to school in MPS.

(Two caveats about the test before I move on: One, not all students in a state, district, or even school are tested, as the NAEP aims for a representative sample; and MPS has not emphasized the importance of this test among its students to the extent that it has the WKCE, the state test that actually affects us. This does not excuse or fully explain the low scores, which are appalling and ought to be a wake-up call, but this is important context.)

So here's the deal: As we learned in that first linked story above, the state's "Tier 1" and "Tier 2" schools are all high schools. Here we have NAEP results that make plain the fact that MPS students start high school dramatically behind, the state's list and laser-like focus seems mainly to be on these high schools, and then significantly (though, again, I don't have a full handle on the formula) on state tests taken about one and a quarter years into the four years that high schools have to work with teachers.

In short, we know Milwaukee's eighth-graders are dramatically behind, and we give high schools just a few months to fix them before we start applying labels of failure and threatening to fire all the high school teachers.

This is dumb.

One factor that I know is not considered in the formula for labeling high schools is a metric that MPS refers to as "value-added," which it defines as measuring "achievement growth for each school by calculating the increase in scale scores on the WKCE-CRT from year for essentially the same group of students in Reading and Mathematics, adjusted for demographic factors." In other words, comparing specific students' year-to-year scores to see if the school is doing anything to improve achievement in those specific students. Some high schools add significant value--taking low-performing students and helping them to achieve much better, if still low. (A student reading at the 8th-grade level on the 10th-grade test is not proficient, but if that student started 9th grade reading at a 5th-grade level, then the high school is doing a good job, we should all agree.) Some high schools add no value--leaving low-performing students just as far or farther behind.

Because figuring out the value-added numbers takes more data mining than other metrics, MPS doesn't have those data available beyond the 2006-2007 school year yet. But if you want to consider two representative schools from the state's "Tier 1" and "Tier 2" lists, we can see their value-added data from that year; it is on the last page of the school report cards available here. One of the schools, the Washington High School of Law, Education, and Public Service, has in its report card that its had low achievement and added little value in 2006-2007. South Division High School, on the other hand, had low achievement but high added value. And yet both schools face the same label of failure and threats from the state. Does it make sense to apply the same corrective actions to both schools?

The usual this-is-not-to-says apply: This is not to say that MPS high schools are all pony factories that smell like rainbows. Clearly, our high schools' graduation, attendance, behavior, and GPA data suggest that they have struggles and issues even if not noted by the NAEP. And this is not to say that I advocate complacency and maintenance of the status quo.

But this is to say that efforts by DPI under NCLB and ARRA are misguided and wasteful, and that the overwhelming data that we continue to collect clearly say that Milwaukee students' achievement deficits begin long before high school, even if high school is where they often become manifest. There are between eight and ten years of school where intervention can be better targeted before students even walk into high schools, on top of--I know you've been waiting for me to say it--a desperate need for investment in the community outside of school such that parents are better equipped to support their children as they learn to read and write and think critically and, importantly, behave in school. (I love the Violence Free Zone mentors in my school and I know they do a great job, but again they're working with kids who have had 15 or 16 years of screw-up in their lives before anyone bothered to intervene.)

How much longer will we continue to blame the wrong people and fight the wrong fights?

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