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  • DC School Growth Scores And Poverty

    Written on July 15, 2013

    As noted in a nice little post over at Greater Greater Washington's education blog, the District of Columbia Office of the State Superintendent of Education (OSSE) recently started releasing growth model scores for DC’s charter and regular public schools. These models, in a nutshell, assess schools by following their students over time and gauging their testing progress relative to similar students (they can also be used for individual teachers, but DCPS uses a different model in its teacher evaluations).

    In my opinion, producing these estimates and making them available publicly is a good idea, and definitely preferable to the district’s previous reliance on changes in proficiency, which are truly awful measures (see here for more on this). It’s also, however, important to note that the model chosen by OSSE – a “median growth percentile," or MGP model, produces estimates that have been shown to be at least somewhat more heavily associated with student characteristics than other types of models, such as value-added models proper. This does not necessarily mean the growth percentile models are “inaccurate” – there are good reasons, such as resources and more difficulty with teacher recruitment/retention, to believe that schools serving poorer students might be less effective, on average, and it’s tough to separate “real” effects from bias in the models.

    That said, let’s take a quick look at this relationship using the DC MGP scores from 2011, with poverty data from the National Center for Education Statistics.

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  • A Few Points About The New CREDO Charter School Analysis

    Written on July 1, 2013

    A new report from CREDO on charter schools’ test-based performance received a great deal of attention, and rightfully so - it includes 27 states, which together serve 95 percent of the nation's charter students.

    The analysis as a whole, like its predecessor, is a great contribution. Its sheer scope, as well as a few specific parts (examination of trends), are new and important. And most of the findings serve to reaffirm the core conclusions of the existing research on charters' estimated test-based effects. Such an interpretation may not be particularly satisfying to charter supporters and opponents looking for new ammunition, but the fact that this national analysis will not settle anything in the contentious debate about charter schools once again suggests the need to start asking a different set of questions.

    Along these lines, as well as others, there are a few points worth discussing quickly. 

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  • Charter School Authorization And Growth

    Written on June 13, 2013

    If you ask a charter school supporter why charter schools tend to exhibit inconsistency in their measured test-based impact, there’s a good chance they’ll talk about authorizing. That is, they will tell you that the quality of authorization laws and practices -- the guidelines by which charters are granted, renewed and revoked -- drives much and perhaps even most of the variation in the performance of charters relative to comparable district schools, and that strengthening these laws is the key to improving performance.

    Accordingly, a recently-announced campaign by the National Association of Charter School Authorizers aims to step up the rate at which charter authorizers close “low-performing schools” and are more selective in allowing new schools to open. In addition, a recent CREDO study found (among other things) that charter middle and high schools’ performance during their first few years is more predictive of future performance than many people may have thought, thus lending support to the idea of opening and closing schools as an improvement strategy.

    Below are a few quick points about the authorization issue, which lead up to a question about the relationship between selectivity and charter sector growth.

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  • The FCAT Writing, On The Wall

    Written on May 28, 2013

    The annual release of state testing data makes the news in every state, but Florida is one of those places where it is to some degree a national story.*

    Well, it’s getting to be that time of year again. Last week, the state released its writing exam (FCAT 2.0 Writing) results for 2013 (as well as the math and reading results for third graders only).  The Florida Department of Education (FLDOE) press release noted: “With significant gains in writing scores, Florida’s teachers and students continue to show that higher expectations and support at home and in the classroom enable every child to succeed.” This interpretation of the data was generally repeated without scrutiny in the press coverage of the results.

    Putting aside the fact that the press release incorrectly calls the year-to-year changes “gains” (they are actually comparisons of two different groups of students; see here), the FLDOE's presentation of the FCAT Writing results, though common, is, at best, incomplete and, at worst, misleading. Moreover, the important issues in this case are applicable in all states, and unusually easy to illustrate using the simple data released to the public.

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  • The Plural Of Anecdote Is Data

    Written on April 11, 2013

    ** Reprinted here in the Washington Post

    Last week, I attended a Center for American Progress (CAP) discussion, where UC Berkeley professor David Kirp spoke about his research on Union City’s school system, and offered some ideas from his new book, Improbable Scholars: The Rebirth of a Great American School System and a Strategy for America’s Schools.

    Kirp’s work and Union City have received a lot of attention in the last month or so, and while most find the story heartening, a few commentators have had more skeptical reactions. True, this is the story of one district in one state finding success through collaboration and hard work, but research from other disciplines – sociology, business, management, organizational studies – suggests that similar human dynamics can be observed in settings other than schools and school districts. I would like to situate Kirp’s work in this broader framework; that is, among a myriad of studies – case studies, if you will – pointing to the same fundamental phenomena.

    Union City is a community with an unemployment rate 60 percent higher than the national average, where three-quarters of public school students live in homes where only Spanish is spoken. About 25 years ago, the school district was in so much trouble that state officials threatened a state takeover. Since then, Union City’s measured performance has improved considerably. In 2011, almost 90 percent of the district’s students graduated from high school, and 60 percent went on to college. The change is large enough to suggest some degree of "real" improvement, and it’s plausible to believe that better school quality had at least something to do with that. So, what was Union City’s school improvement strategy?

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  • A Controversial Consensus On KIPP Charter Schools

    Written on March 12, 2013

    A recent Mathematica report on the performance of KIPP charter schools expands and elaborates on their prior analyses of these schools' (estimated) effects on average test scores and other outcomes (also here). These findings are important and interesting, and were covered extensively elsewhere.

    As is usually the case with KIPP, the results stirred the full spectrum of reactions. To over-generalize a bit, critics sometimes seem unwilling to acknowledge that KIPP's results are real no matter how well-documented they might be, whereas some proponents are quick to use KIPP to proclaim a triumph for the charter movement, one that can justify the expansion of charter sectors nationwide.

    Despite all this controversy, there may be more opportunity for agreement here than meets the eye. So, let’s try to lay out a few reasonable conclusions and see if we might find some of that common ground.

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  • Why Did Florida Schools' Grades Improve Dramatically Between 1999 and 2005?

    Written on February 11, 2013

    ** Reprinted here in the Washington Post

    Former Florida Governor Jeb Bush was in Virginia last week, helping push for a new law that would install an “A-F” grading system for all public schools in the commonwealth, similar to a system that has existed in Florida for well over a decade.

    In making his case, Governor Bush put forth an argument about the Florida system that he and his supporters use frequently. He said that, right after the grades went into place in his state, there was a drop in the proportion of D and F schools, along with a huge concurrent increase in the proportion of A schools. For example, as Governor Bush notes, in 1999, only 12 percent of schools got A's. In 2005, when he left office, the figure was 53 percent. The clear implication: It was the grading of schools (and the incentives attached to the grades) that caused the improvements.

    There is some pretty good evidence (also here) that the accountability pressure of Florida’s grading system generated modest increases in testing performance among students in schools receiving F's (i.e., an outcome to which consequences were attached), and perhaps higher-rated schools as well. However, putting aside the serious confusion about what Florida’s grades actually measure, as well as the incorrect premise that we can evaluate a grading policy's effect by looking at the simple distribution of those grades over time, there’s a much deeper problem here: The grades changed in part because the criteria changed.

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  • A Few Quick Fixes For School Accountability Systems

    Written on February 5, 2013

    Our guest authors today are Morgan Polikoff and Andrew McEachin. Morgan is Assistant Professor in the Rossier School of Education at the University of Southern California. Andrew is an Institute of Education Science postdoctoral fellow at the University of Virginia.

    In a previous post, we described some of the problems with the Senate's Harkin-Enzi plan for reauthorizing the No Child Left Behind Act, based on our own analyses, which yielded three main findings. First, selecting the bottom 5% of schools for intervention based on changes in California’s composite achievement index resulted in remarkably unstable rankings. Second, identifying the bottom 5% based on schools' lowest performing subgroup overwhelmingly targeted those serving larger numbers of special education students. Third and finally, we found evidence that middle and high schools were more likely to be identified than elementary schools, and smaller schools more likely than larger schools.

    None of these findings was especially surprising (see here and here, for instance), and could easily have been anticipated. Thus, we argued that policymakers need to pay more attention to the vast (and rapidly expanding) literature on accountability system design.

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  • When Growth Isn't Really Growth

    Written on January 15, 2013

    Let’s try a super-simple thought experiment with data. Suppose we have an inner-city middle school serving grades 6-8. Students in all three grades take the state exam annually (in this case, we’ll say that it’s at the very beginning of the year). Now, for the sake of this illustration, let’s avail ourselves of the magic of hypotheticals and assume away many of the sources of error that make year-to-year changes in public testing data unreliable.

    First, we’ll say that this school reports test scores instead of proficiency rates, and that the scores are comparable between grades. Second, every year, our school welcomes a new cohort of sixth graders that is the exact same size and has the exact same average score as preceding cohorts – 30 out of 100, well below the state average of 65. Third and finally, there is no mobility at this school. Every student who enters sixth grade stays there for three years, and goes to high school upon completion of eighth grade. No new students are admitted mid-year.

    Okay, here’s where it gets interesting: Suppose this school is phenomenally effective in boosting its students’ scores. In fact, each year, every single student gains 20 points. It is the highest growth rate in the state. Believe it or not, using the metrics we commonly use to judge schoolwide “growth” or "gains," this school would still look completely ineffective. Take a look at the figure below.

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  • A Case Against Assigning Single Ratings To Schools

    Written on November 26, 2012

    The new breed of school rating systems, some of which are still getting off the ground, will co-exist with federal proficiency targets in many states, and they are (or will be) used for a variety of purposes, including closure, resource allocation and informing parents and the public (see our posts on the systems in INFLOHCONYC).*

    The approach that most states are using, in part due to the "ESEA flexibility" guidelines set by the U.S. Department of Education, is to combine different types of measures, often very crudely, into a single grade or categorical rating for each school. Administrators and media coverage usually characterize these ratings as measures of school performance - low-rated schools are called "low performing," while those receiving top ratings are characterized as "high performing." That's not accurate - or, at best, it's only partially true.

    Some of the indicators that comprise the ratings, such as proficiency rates, are best interpreted as (imperfectly) describing student performance on tests, whereas other measures, such as growth model estimates, make some attempt to isolate schools’ contribution to that performance. Both might have a role to play in accountability systems, but they're more or less appropriate depending on how you’re trying to use them.

    So, here’s my question: Why do we insist on throwing them all together into a single rating for each school? To illustrate why I think this question needs to be addressed, let’s take a quick look at four highly-simplified situations in which one might use ratings.

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