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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 Superintendent Factor

    Written on September 16, 2014

    One of the more visible manifestations of what I have called “informal test-based accountability” -- that is, how testing results play out in the media and public discourse -- is the phenomenon of superintendents, particularly big city superintendents, making their reputations based on the results during their administrations.

    In general, big city superintendents are expected to promise large testing increases, and their success or failure is to no small extent judged on whether those promises are fulfilled. Several superintendents almost seem to have built entire careers on a few (misinterpreted) points in proficiency rates or NAEP scale scores. This particular phenomenon, in my view, is rather curious. For one thing, any district leader will tell you that many of their core duties, such as improving administrative efficiency, communicating with parents and the community, strengthening districts' financial situation, etc., might have little or no impact on short-term testing gains. In addition, even those policies that do have such an impact often take many years to show up in aggregate results.

    In short, judging superintendents based largely on the testing results during their tenures seems misguided. A recent report issued by the Brown Center at Brookings, and written by Matt Chingos, Grover Whitehurst and Katharine Lindquist, adds a little bit of empirical insight to this viewpoint.

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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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  • The Semantics of Test Scores

    Written on August 15, 2014

    Our guest author today is Jennifer Borgioli, a Senior Consultant with Learner-Centered Initiatives, Ltd., where she supports schools with designing performance based assessments, data analysis, and curriculum design.

    The chart below was taken from the 2014 report on student performance on the Grades 3-8 tests administered by the New York State Department of Education.

    Based on this chart, which of the following statements is the most accurate?

    A. “64 percent of 8th grade students failed the ELA test”

    B. “36 percent of 8th graders are at grade level in reading and writing”

    C. “36 percent of students meet or exceed the proficiency standard (Level 3 or 4) on the Grade 8 CCLS-aligned math test”

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  • What Kindergartners Might Teach Us About Test-Based Accountability

    Written on June 24, 2014

    There is an ongoing debate about widespread administration of standardized tests to kindergartners. This is of course a serious decision. My personal opinion about whether this is a good idea depends on several factors, such as how good the tests will be and, most importantly, how the results will be used (and I cannot say that I am optimistic about the latter).

    Although the policy itself must be considered seriously on its merits, there is one side aspect of testing kindergarteners that fascinates me: It would demonstrate how absurd it is to judge school performance, as does NCLB, using absolute performance levels – i.e., how highly students score on tests, rather than their progress over time.

    Basically, the kindergarten tests would inevitably shake out the same way as those administered in later grades. Schools and districts serving more disadvantaged students would score substantially lower than their counterparts in more affluent areas. If the scores were converted to proficiency rates or similar cut-score measures, they would show extremely low pass rates in urban districts such as Detroit.

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  • Contrarians At The Gates

    Written on June 19, 2014

    Unlike many of my colleagues, I don’t have a negative view of the Gates Foundation's education programs. Although I will admit that part of me is uneasy with the sheer amount of resources (and influence) they wield, and there are a few areas where I don’t see eye-to-eye with their ideas (or grantees), I agree with them on a great many things, and I think that some of their efforts, such as the Measuring Effective Teachers project, are important and beneficial (even if I found their packaging of the MET results a bit overblown).

    But I feel obliged to say that I am particularly impressed with their recent announcement of support for a two-year delay on attaching stakes to the results of new assessments aligned with the Common Core. Granted, much of this is due to the fact that I think this is the correct policy decision (see my opinion piece with Morgan Polikoff). Independent of that, however, I think it took intellectual and political courage for them to take this stance, given their efforts toward new teacher evaluations that include test-based productivity measures.

    The announcement was guaranteed to please almost nobody.

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