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August 04, 2009
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Yesterday's NY Times article points out that 97 percent of??NYC schools had received an A or B on city report cards. Given all the lamenting that goes on about the sorry state of public education in America (and rightly so), news like this is amusing. The article reports that "at more than 50 of the schools that received an A... more than half of the fourth graders were below state standards in reading." Education officials in NYC have already begun planning to raise standards so that next year's report card grades seem more realistic.
Here in Ohio, statewide report card data was released last week. A quote from the superintendent of public instruction raises a similar question about whether students are actually learning, or standards are just too low. "Educators continue to help students achieve at higher levels and, in many cases, surpass the rigorous academic standards that have been laid before them," said Deborah Delisle, referencing the fact that more than 85 percent of Ohio's 612 school districts received an A or a B, an increase from previous years.
Statistics like this obviously mask the 15 percent of Ohio districts who aren't performing well (districts that tend to have disproportionately large student populations) and the fact that there are a whole lot of students in the Buckeye State who do not reside in an A or B district (to be precise, 202,229 in the eight largest urban districts alone). For those of you non-Ohioans, it's important to note that part of the elevation happening in many districts' rankings can be explained by the inclusion of value-added metrics on the report card.
Still, it's hard not to feel like there's a schism in viewpoints about whether students are doing better or not. Just last week, Checker pointed out much more depressing national measures of student progress (SAT, ACT, NAEP). According to NAEP, fewer than half of Ohio's fourth and eighth graders are proficient in reading or math (contrast that with Delisle's proclamation that we are surpassing rigorous standards). In short, though many students in Ohio and nationally are failing miserably, our report cards are stickered with lots and lots of As and Bs.
This might be an over-simplification of the discussion (see Terry's more nuanced description of the problems with Ohio ratings, and a later editorial calling on the state to dump its current ranking system), but I guess the point I'm making is that the level of spin placed on student achievement data has gotten to be headache-inducing. It reminds me of an ed policy class assignment I had once, for which I had to pretend to be the lead PR person in a large, under-performing district like Cleveland. The task was to simply rearrange the report card data in myriad ways, and create a narrative that could get our parents, community members, and teachers clapping for us.
Admittedly, more people probably spot the data shuffling and the overall politicking than are unreservedly celebrating student achievement in NYC or Ohio.?? But it's still bothersome to watch perverse incentives (inherent to accountability systems) warp our conversation about student achievement.