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School Effects

  • The Status Fallacy: New York State Edition

    Written on March 5, 2015

    A recent New York Times story addresses directly New York Governor Andrew Cuomo’s suggestion, in his annual “State of the State” speech, that New York schools are in a state of crisis and "need dramatic reform." The article’s general conclusion is that the “data suggest otherwise.”

    There are a bunch of important points raised in the article, but most of the piece is really just discussing student rather than school performance. Simple statistics about how highly students score on tests – i.e., “status measures” – tell you virtually nothing about the effectiveness of the schools those students attend, since, among other reasons, they don’t account for the fact that many students enter the system at low levels. How much students in a school know in a given year is very different from how much they learned over the course of that year.

    I (and many others) have written about this “status fallacy” dozens of times (see our resources page), not because I enjoy repeating myself (I don’t), but rather because I am continually amazed just how insidious it is, and how much of an impact it has on education policy and debate in the U.S. And it feels like every time I see signs that things might be changing for the better, there is an incident, such as Governor Cuomo’s speech, that makes me question how much progress there really has been at the highest levels.

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  • Turning Conflict Into Trust Improves Schools And Student Learning

    Written on March 3, 2015

    Our guest author today is Greg Anrig, vice president of policy and programs at The Century Foundation and author of Beyond the Education Wars: Evidence That Collaboration Builds Effective Schools.

    In recent years, a number of studies (discussed below; also see here and here) have shown that effective public schools are built on strong collaborative relationships, including those between administrators and teachers. These findings have helped to accelerate a movement toward constructing such partnerships in public schools across the U.S. However, the growing research and expanding innovations aimed at nurturing collaboration have largely been neglected by both mainstream media and the policy community.

    Studies that explore the question of what makes successful schools work never find a silver bullet, but they do consistently pinpoint commonalities in how those schools operate. The University of Chicago's Consortium on Chicago School Research produced the most compelling research of this type, published in a book called Organizing Schools for Improvement. The consortium gathered demographic and test data, and conducted extensive surveys of stakeholders, in more than 400 Chicago elementary schools from 1990 to 2005. That treasure trove of information enabled the consortium to identify with a high degree of confidence the organizational characteristics and practices associated with schools that produced above-average improvement in student outcomes.

    The most crucial finding was that the most effective schools, based on test score improvement over time after controlling for demographic factors, had developed an unusually high degree of "relational trust" among their administrators, teachers, and parents.

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  • The Persistent Misidentification Of "Low Performing Schools"

    Written on February 3, 2015

    In education, we hear the terms “failing school” and “low-performing school” quite frequently. Usually, they are used in soundbyte-style catchphrases such as, “We can’t keep students trapped in ‘failing schools.’” Sometimes, however, they are used to refer to a specific group of schools in a given state or district that are identified as “failing” or “low-performing” as part of a state or federal law or program (e.g., waivers, SIG). There is, of course, interstate variation in these policies, but one common definition is that schools are “failing/low-performing” if their proficiency rates are in the bottom five percent statewide.

    Putting aside the (important) issues with judging schools based solely on standardized testing results, low proficiency rates (or low average scores) tell you virtually nothing about whether or not a school is “failing.” As we’ve discussed here many times, students enter their schools performing at different levels, and schools cannot control the students they serve, only how much progress those students make while they’re in attendance (see here for more).

    From this perspective, then, there may be many schools that are labeled “failing” or “low performing” but are actually of above average effectiveness in raising test scores. And, making things worse, virtually all of these will be schools that serve the most disadvantaged students. If that’s true, it’s difficult to think of anything more ill-advised than closing these schools, or even labeling them as “low performing.” Let’s take a quick, illustrative look at this possibility using the “bottom five percent” criterion, and data from Colorado in 2013-14 (note that this simple analysis is similar to what I did in this post, but this one is a little more specific; also see Glazerman and Potamites 2011; Ladd and Lauen 2010; and especially Chingos and West 2015).

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  • The Accessibility Conundrum In Accountability Systems

    Written on January 7, 2015

    One of the major considerations in designing accountability policy, whether in education or other fields, is what you might call accessibility. That is, both the indicators used to construct measures and how they are calculated should be reasonably easy for stakeholders to understand, particularly if the measures are used in high-stakes decisions.

    This important consideration also generates great tension. For example, complaints that Florida’s school rating system is “too complicated” have prompted legislators to make changes over the years. Similarly, other tools – such as procedures for scoring and establishing cut points for standardized tests, and particularly the use of value-added models – are routinely criticized as too complex for educators and other stakeholders to understand. There is an implicit argument underlying these complaints: If people can’t understand a measure, it should not be used to hold them accountable for their work. Supporters of using these complex accountability measures, on the other hand, contend that it’s more important for the measures to be “accurate” than easy to understand.

    I personally am a bit torn. Given the extreme importance of accountability systems’ credibility among those subject to them, not to mention the fact that performance evaluations must transmit accessible and useful information in order to generate improvements, there is no doubt that overly complex measures can pose a serious problem for accountability systems. It might be difficult for practitioners to adjust their practice based on a measure if they don't understand that measure, and/or if they are unconvinced that the measure is transmitting meaningful information. And yet, the fact remains that measuring the performance of schools and individuals is extremely difficult, and simplistic measures are, more often than not, inadequate for these purposes.

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  • A Descriptive Analysis Of The 2014 D.C. Charter School Ratings

    Written on November 24, 2014

    The District of Columbia Public Charter School Board (PCSB) recently released the 2014 results of their “Performance Management Framework” (PMF), which is the rating system that the PCSB uses for its schools.

    Very quick background: This system sorts schools into one of three “tiers," with Tier 1 being the highest-performing, as measured by the system, and Tier 3 being the lowest. The ratings are based on a weighted combination of four types of factors -- progress, achievement, gateway, and leading -- which are described in detail in the first footnote.* As discussed in a previous post, the PCSB system, in my opinion, is better than many others out there, since growth measures play a fairly prominent role in the ratings, and, as a result, the final scores are only moderately correlated with key student characteristics such as subsidized lunch eligibility.** In addition, the PCSB is quite diligent about making the PMF results accessible to parents and other stakeholders, and, for the record, I have found the staff very open to sharing data and answering questions.

    That said, PCSB's big message this year was that schools’ ratings are improving over time, and that, as a result, a substantially larger proportion of DC charter students are attending top-rated schools. This was reported uncritically by several media outlets, including this story in the Washington Post. It is also based on a somewhat questionable use of the data. Let’s take a very simple look at the PMF dataset, first to examine this claim and then, more importantly, to see what we can learn about the PMF and DC charter schools in 2013 and 2014.

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  • Rethinking The Use Of Simple Achievement Gap Measures In School Accountability Systems

    Written on November 17, 2014

    So-called achievement gaps – the differences in average test performance among student subgroups, usually defined in terms of ethnicity or income –  are important measures. They demonstrate persistent inequality of educational outcomes and economic opportunities between different members of our society.

    So long as these gaps remain, it means that historically lower-performing subgroups (e.g., low-income students or ethnic minorities) are less likely to gain access to higher education, good jobs, and political voice. We should monitor these gaps; try to identify all the factors that affect them, for good and for ill; and endeavor to narrow them using every appropriate policy lever – both inside and outside of the educational system.

    Achievement gaps have also, however, taken on a very different role over the past 10 or so years. The sizes of gaps, and extent of “gap closing," are routinely used by reporters and advocates to judge the performance of schools, school districts, and states. In addition, gaps and gap trends are employed directly in formal accountability systems (e.g., states’ school grading systems), in which they are conceptualized as performance measures.

    Although simple measures of the magnitude of or changes in achievement gaps are potentially very useful in several different contexts, they are poor gauges of school performance, and shouldn’t be the basis for high-stakes rewards and punishments in any accountability system.

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  • The Bewildering Arguments Underlying Florida's Fight Over ELL Test Scores

    Written on November 3, 2014

    The State of Florida is currently engaged in a policy tussle of sorts with the U.S. Department of Education (USED) over Florida’s accountability system. To make a long story short, last spring, Florida passed a law saying that the test scores of English language learners (ELLs) would only count toward schools’ accountability grades (and teacher evaluations) once the ELL students had been in the system for at least two years. This runs up against federal law, which requires that ELLs’ scores be counted after only one year, and USED has indicated that it’s not willing to budge on this requirement. In response, Florida is considering legal action.

    This conflict might seem incredibly inane (unless you’re in one of the affected schools, of course). Beneath the surface, though, this is actually kind of an amazing story.

    Put simply, Florida’s argument against USED's policy of counting ELL scores after just one year is a perfect example of the reason why most of the state's core accountability measures (not to mention those of NCLB as a whole) are so inappropriate: Because they judge schools’ performance based largely on where their students’ scores end up without paying any attention to where they start out.

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  • Redesigning Florida's School Report Cards

    Written on October 9, 2014

    The Foundation for Excellence in Education, an organization that advocates for education reform in Florida, in particular the set of policies sometimes called the "Florida Formula," recently announced a competition to redesign the “appearance, presentation and usability” of the state’s school report cards. Winners of the competition will share prize money totaling $35,000.

    The contest seems like a great idea. Improving the manner in which education data are presented is, of course, a laudable goal, and an open competition could potentially attract a diverse group of talented people. As regular readers of this blog know, however, I am not opposed to sensibly-designed test-based accountability policies, but my primary concern about school rating systems is focused mostly on the quality and interpretation of the measures used therein. So, while I support the idea of a competition for improving the design of the report cards, I am hoping that the end result won't just be a very attractive, clever instrument devoted to the misinterpretation of testing data.

    In this spirit, I would like to submit four simple graphs that illustrate, as clearly as possible and using the latest data from 2014, what Florida’s school grades are actually telling us. Since the scoring and measures vary a bit between different types of schools, let’s focus on elementary schools.

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  • The Thrill Of Success, The Agony Of Measurement

    Written on August 21, 2014

    ** Reprinted here in the Washington Post

    The recent release of the latest New York State testing results created a little public relations coup for the controversial Success Academies charter chain, which operates over 20 schools in New York City, and is seeking to expand.

    Shortly after the release of the data, the New York Post published a laudatory article noting that seven of the Success Academies had overall proficiency rates that were among the highest in the state, and arguing that the schools “live up to their name." The Daily News followed up by publishing an op-ed that compares the Success Academies' combined 94 percent math proficiency rate to the overall city rate of 35 percent, and uses that to argue that the chain should be allowed to expand because its students “aced the test” (this is not really what high proficiency rates mean, but fair enough).

    On the one hand, this is great news, and a wonderfully impressive showing by these students. On the other, decidedly less sensational hand, it's also another example of the use of absolute performance indicators (e.g., proficiency rates) as measures of school rather than student performance, despite the fact that they are not particularly useful for the former purpose since, among other reasons, they do not account for where students start out upon entry to the school. I personally don't care whether Success Academy gets good or bad press. I do, however, believe that how one gauges effectiveness, test-based or otherwise, is important, even if one reaches the same conclusion using different measures.

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  • Expectations For Student Performance Under NCLB Waivers

    Written on May 20, 2014

    A recent story in the Chicago Tribune notes that Illinois’ NCLB waiver plan sets lower targets for certain student subgroups, including minority and low-income students. This, according to the article, means that “Illinois students of different backgrounds no longer will be held to the same standards," and goes on to quote advocates who are concerned that this amounts to lower expectations for traditionally lower-scoring groups of children.

    The argument that expectations should not vary by student characteristics is, of course, valid and important. Nevertheless, as Chad Aldeman notes, the policy of setting different targets for different groups of students has been legally required since the enactment of NCLB, under which states must “give credit to lower-performing groups that demonstrate progress." This was supposed to ensure, albeit with exceedingly crude measures, that schools weren't punished due to the students they serve, and how far behind were those students upon entry into the schools.

    I would take that a step further by adding two additional points. The first is quite obvious, and is mentioned briefly in the Tribune article, but too often is obscured in these kinds of conversations: Neither NCLB nor the waivers actually hold students to different standards. The cut scores above which students are deemed “proficient," somewhat arbitrary though they may be, do not vary by student subgroup, or by any other factor within a given state. All students are held to the same exact standard.

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