Skip to:

Testing Data

  • How Often Do Proficiency Rates And Average Scores Move In Different Directions?

    Written on July 17, 2012

    New York State is set to release its annual testing data today. Throughout the state, and especially in New York City, we will hear a lot about changes in school and district proficiency rates. The rates themselves have advantages – they are easy to understand, comparable across grades and reflect a standards-based goal. But they also suffer severe weaknesses, such as their sensitivity to where the bar is set and the fact that proficiency rates and the actual scores upon which they’re based can paint very different pictures of student performance, both in a given year as well as over time. I’ve discussed this latter issue before in the NYC context (and elsewhere), but I’d like to revisit it quickly.

    Proficiency rates can only tell you how many students scored above a certain line; they are completely uninformative as to how far above or below that line the scores might be. Consider a hypothetical example: A student who is rated as proficient in year one might make large gains in his or her score in year two, but this would not be reflected in the proficiency rate for his or her school – in both years, the student would just be coded as “proficient” (the same goes for large decreases that do not “cross the line”). As a result, across a group of students, the average score could go up or down while proficiency rates remained flat or moved in the opposite direction. Things are even messier when data are cross-sectional (as public data lmost always are), since you’re comparing two different groups of students (see this very recent NYC IBO report).

    Let’s take a rough look at how frequently rates and scores diverge in New York City.

    READ MORE
  • The Busy Intersection Of Test-Based Accountability And Public Perception

    Written on June 28, 2012

    Last year, the New York City Department of Education (NYCDOE) rolled out its annual testing results for the city’s students in a rather misleading manner. The press release touted the “significant progress” between 2010 and 2011 among city students, while, at a press conference, Mayor Michael Bloomberg called the results “dramatic." In reality, however, the increase in proficiency rates (1-3 percentage points) was very modest, and, more importantly, the focus on the rates hid the fact that actual scale scores were either flat or decreased in most grades. In contrast, one year earlier, when the city's proficiency rates dropped due to the state raising the cut scores, Mayor Bloomberg told reporters (correctly) that it was the actual scores that "really matter."

    Most recently, in announcing their 2011 graduation rates, the city did it again. The headline of the NYCDOE press release proclaims that “a record number of students graduated from high school in 2011." This may be technically true, but the actual increase in the rate (rather than the number of graduates) was 0.4 percentage points, which is basically flat (as several reporters correctly noted). In addition, the city's "college readiness rate" was similarly stagnant, falling slightly from 21.4 percent to 20.7 percent, while the graduation rate increase was higher both statewide and in New York State's four other large districts (the city makes these comparisons when they are favorable).*

    We've all become accustomed to this selective, exaggerated presentation of testing data, which is of course not at all limited to NYC. And it illustrates the obvious fact that test-based accountability plays out in multiple arenas, formal and informal, including the court of public opinion.

    READ MORE
  • Colorado's Questionable Use Of The Colorado Growth Model

    Written on June 25, 2012

    I have been writing critically about states’ school rating systems (e.g., OhioFloridaLouisiana), and I thought I would find one that is, at least in my (admittedly value-laden) opinion, more defensibly designed. It didn't quite turn out as I had hoped.

    One big starting point in my assessment is how heavily the systems weight absolute performance (how highly students score) versus growth (how quickly students improve). As I’ve argued many times, the former (absolute level) is a poor measure of school performance in a high-stakes accountability system. It does not address the fact that some schools, particularly those in more affluent areas, serve  students who, on average, enter the system at a higher-performing level. This amounts to holding schools accountable for outcomes they largely cannot control (see Doug Harris' excellent book for more on this in the teacher context). Thus, to whatever degree testing results can be used to judge actual school effectiveness, growth measures, while themselves highly imperfect, are to be preferred in a high-stakes context.

    There are a few states that assign more weight to growth than absolute performance (see this prior post on New York City’s system). One of them is Colorado's system, which uses the well-known “Colorado Growth Model” (CGM).*

    In my view, putting aside the inferential issues with the CGM (see the first footnote), the focus on growth in Colorado's system is in theory a good idea. But, looking at the data and documentation reveals a somewhat unsettling fact: There is a double standard of sorts, by which two schools with the same growth score can receive different ratings, and it's mostly their absolute performance levels determining whether this is the case.

    READ MORE
  • Gender Pay Gaps And Educational Achievement Gaps

    Written on June 13, 2012

    There is currently an ongoing rhetorical war of sorts over the gender wage gap. One “side” makes the common argument that women earn around 75 cents on the male dollar (see here, for example).

    Others assert that the gender gap is a myth, or that it is so small as to be unimportant.

    Often, these types of exchanges are enough to exasperate the casual observer, and inspire claims such as “statistics can be made to say anything." In truth, however, the controversy over the gender gap is a good example of how descriptive statistics, by themselves, say nothing. What matters is how they’re interpreted.

    Moreover, the manner in which one must interpret various statistics on the gender gap applies almost perfectly to the achievement gaps that are so often mentioned in education debates.

    READ MORE
  • We Should Only Hold Schools Accountable For Outcomes They Can Control

    Written on May 29, 2012

    Let’s say we were trying to evaluate a teacher’s performance for this academic year, and part of that evaluation would use students’ test scores (if you object to using test scores this way, put that aside for a moment). We checked the data and reached two conclusions. First, we found that her students made fantastic progress this year. Second, we also saw that the students’ scores were still quite a bit lower than their peers’ in the district. Which measure should we use to evaluate this teacher?

    Would we consider judging her even partially based on the latter – students’ average scores? Of course not. Those students made huge progress, and the only reason their absolute performance levels are relatively low is because they were low at the beginning of the year. This teacher could not control the fact that she was assigned lower-scoring students. All she can do is make sure that they improve. That’s why no teacher evaluation system places any importance on students’ absolute performance, instead focusing on growth (and, of course, non-test measures). In fact, growth models control for absolute performance (prior year’s test scores) so it doesn't bias the results.

    If we would never judge teachers based on absolute performance, why are we judging schools that way? Why does virtually every school/district rating system place some emphasis – often the primary emphasis – on absolute performance?

    READ MORE
  • Three Important Distinctions In How We Talk About Test Scores

    Written on May 24, 2012

    In education discussions and articles, people (myself included) often say “achievement” when referring to test scores, or “student learning” when talking about changes in those scores. These words reflect implicit judgments to some degree (e.g., that the test scores actually measure learning or achievement). Every once in a while, it’s useful to remind ourselves that scores from even the best student assessments are imperfect measures of learning. But this is so widely understood - certainly in the education policy world, and I would say among the public as well - that the euphemisms are generally tolerated.

    And then there are a few common terms or phrases that, in my personal opinion, are not so harmless. I’d like to quickly discuss three of them (all of which I’ve talked about before). All three appear many times every day in newspapers, blogs, and regular discussions. To criticize their use may seem like semantic nitpicking to some people, but I would argue that these distinctions are substantively important and may not be so widely-acknowledged, especially among people who aren’t heavily engaged in education policy (e.g., average newspaper readers).

    So, here they are, in no particular order.

    READ MORE
  • Herding FCATs

    Written on May 22, 2012

    About a week ago, Florida officials went into crisis mode after revealing that the proficiency rate on the state’s writing test (FCAT) dropped from 81 percent to 27 percent among fourth graders, with similarly large drops in the other two grades in which the test is administered (eighth and tenth). The panic was almost immediate. For one thing, performance on the writing FCAT is counted in the state’s school and district ratings. Many schools would end up with lower grades and could therefore face punitive measures.

    Understandably, a huge uproar was also heard from parents and community members. How could student performance decrease so dramatically? There was so much blame going around that it was difficult to keep track – the targets included the test itself, the phase-in of the state’s new writing standards, and test-based accountability in general.

    Despite all this heated back-and-forth, many people seem to have overlooked one very important, widely-applicable lesson here: That proficiency rates, which are not "scores," are often extremely sensitive to where you set the bar.

    READ MORE
  • There's No One Correct Way To Rate Schools

    Written on April 10, 2012

    Education Week reports on the growth of websites that attempt to provide parents with help in choosing schools, including rating schools according to testing results. The most prominent of these sites is GreatSchools.org. Its test-based school ratings could not be more simplistic – they are essentially just percentile rankings of schools’ proficiency rates as compared to all other schools in their states (the site also provides warnings about the data, along with a bunch of non-testing information).

    This is the kind of indicator that I have criticized when reviewing states’ school/district “grading systems." And it is indeed a poor measure, albeit one that is widely available and easy to understand. But it’s worth quickly discussing the fact that such criticism is conditional on how the ratings are employed - there is a difference between the use of testing data to rate schools for parents versus for high-stakes accountability purposes.

    In other words, the utility and proper interpretation of data vary by context, and there's no one "correct way" to rate schools. The optimal design might differ depending on the purpose for which the ratings will be used. In fact, the reasons why a measure is problematic in one context might very well be a source of strength in another.

    READ MORE
  • If Your Evidence Is Changes In Proficiency Rates, You Probably Don't Have Much Evidence

    Written on March 22, 2012

    Education policymaking and debates are under constant threat from an improbable assailant: Short-term changes in cross-sectional proficiency rates.

    The use of rate changes is still proliferating rapidly at all levels of our education system. These measures, which play an important role in the provisions of No Child Left Behind, are already prominent components of many states’ core accountability systems (e..g, California), while several others will be using some version of them in their new, high-stakes school/district “grading systems." New York State is awarding millions in competitive grants, with almost half the criteria based on rate changes. District consultants issue reports recommending widespread school closures and reconstitutions based on these measures. And, most recently, U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan used proficiency rate increases as “preliminary evidence” supporting the School Improvement Grants program.

    Meanwhile, on the public discourse front, district officials and other national leaders use rate changes to “prove” that their preferred reforms are working (or are needed), while their critics argue the opposite. Similarly, entire charter school sectors are judged, up or down, by whether their raw, unadjusted rates increase or decrease.

    So, what’s the problem? In short, it’s that year-to-year changes in proficiency rates are not valid evidence of school or policy effects. These measures cannot do the job we’re having them do, even on a limited basis. This really has to stop.

    READ MORE
  • Interpreting Achievement Gaps In New Jersey And Beyond

    Written on February 21, 2012

    ** Also posted here on "Valerie Strauss' Answer Sheet" in the Washington Post

    A recent statement by the New Jersey Department of Education (NJDOE) attempts to provide an empirical justification for that state’s focus on the achievement gap – the difference in testing performance between subgroups, usually defined in terms of race or income.

    Achievement gaps, which receive a great deal of public attention, are very useful in that they demonstrate the differences between student subgroups at any given point in time. This is significant, policy-relevant information, as it tells us something about the inequality of educational outcomes between the groups, which does not come through when looking at overall average scores.

    Although paying attention to achievement gaps is an important priority, the NJDOE statement on the issue actually speaks directly to the fact, which is well-established and quite obvious, that one must exercise caution when interpreting these gaps, particularly over time, as measures of student performance.

    READ MORE

Pages

Subscribe to Testing Data

DISCLAIMER

This web site and the information contained herein are provided as a service to those who are interested in the work of the Albert Shanker Institute (ASI). ASI makes no warranties, either express or implied, concerning the information contained on or linked from shankerblog.org. The visitor uses the information provided herein at his/her own risk. ASI, its officers, board members, agents, and employees specifically disclaim any and all liability from damages which may result from the utilization of the information provided herein. The content in the Shanker Blog may not necessarily reflect the views or official policy positions of ASI or any related entity or organization.