Monday, July 9, 2012

False Progress

The education reform movement in Louisiana requires that improved student performance must be demonstrated by schools each year. In fact the goal is to soon have all students performing at grade level or better (a statistical impossibility sometimes called the Lake Wobegon effect). Another major goal upon which the futures of our education reform leaders depend is that all students should be prepared for college by the time they graduate from high school (another statistical impossibility). Never mind that both of these goals are impractical and impossible, they are politically correct and therefore must appear to happen. Each year that the reform effort progresses in Louisiana we create a more dishonest system.

Operating under the threat of state takeover and the embarrassment of a "D" or "F" being assigned to their schools or school system, local administrators are somehow producing improved results on LEAP and high school end of course tests. Also, faced with a mandate that by 2014 the statewide high school graduation rate must increase to 80%, school systems are scrambling to make the numbers. Each year dropout percentages are decreasing. That's what the statistics show. But the statistics may not be real!

The problem is that the official statistics of progress in Louisiana education often do not agree with other statistics that are less open to manipulation. Here are some examples.

 Last year, the Recovery District in New Orleans announced a major reduction in the percentage of dropouts in the district. The district claimed that the annual dropout rate for 9th through 12th grades had been reduced from 9% per year to only 5% per year. Simple math tells us that the total dropouts in a 4 year period for each student cohort would amount to a total of approximately 20%. That means that the 12th grade class size compared to the 9th grade class size for the RSD should be approximately 80% as big. But when one compares the actual number of students in 12th grade to the number in 9th grade, the 12th grade class is only 50% the size of the 9th grade class. 30% of the students have disappeared apparently without dropping out! At the same time the New Orleans School Board operated schools have a senior graduating class that is almost as big as the 9th grade class. Even though they operate in the same geographical area, the school board operated system does not seem to have disappearing students. Also the official cohort graduation rate for the RSD is still in the neighborhood of 60% instead of the 80% predicted by the percentage of drop outs.

What about the state as a whole? Each year students across the state have produced steadily higher LEAP scores on the statewide tests. These LEAP tests are supposed to measure student proficiency in basic skills primarily in English/language arts and Mathematics. The only problem is that when students statewide are given the NAPE test which is supposed to measure the same basic skills, Louisiana students have barely improved. Meanwhile teachers complain that it seems that at least half of the school year is spent drilling students for the LEAP.

Another contrary indicator compared to official state tests is the ACT. Louisiana high school students are scoring only 1% better than they were scoring 5 years ago on the ACT (from 20.1 in 2006 to 20.2 in 2011) even though they are passing their end of course tests at a much better rate than several years ago. A major push for credit recovery (a way of giving credit to students who have failed high school courses) has helped more students get a high school degree. But, even though the high school graduation rate is steadily increasing, Louisiana student success in college is still dismal.

Why is there such disagreement in important statistics? I believe that Campbell's law is really at work here. Campbell's law is an adage that was developed by social scientist Donald Campbell in the 1970s. It states the following: "The more any quantitative social indicator is used for social decision-making, the more subject it will be to corruption pressures and the more apt it will be to distort and corrupt the social processes it is intended to monitor."  Campbell also stated that "achievement tests may well be valuable indicators of general school achievement under conditions of normal teaching aimed at general competence. But when test scores become the goal of the teaching process, they both lose their value as indicators of educational status and distort the educational process in undesirable ways." In other words people manipulate the process or just plain cheat to get the desired result!

Enough time has elapsed in Louisiana since student achievement goals were set that the state education administrators and local administrators are now in the same boat. The state administrators can no longer just blame the lazy or incompetent local educators for lack of progress because the present state reform regime has now been in office long enough (If you combine Pastorek and White as one regime) and have implemented every measure imaginable to produce success. Progress must occur or all administrators and maybe even the Governor will be found to be at fault. That's why you can expect to see everyone with a position to defend quietly supporting the distortion of actual progress predicted by Campbell's law.

Right now, the state Department of Education does not investigate  allegations of cheating on state tests. Instead the official BESE policy is that local authorities should conduct an investigation and report their results to the state. Only if there are obvious flaws in the local investigation will the state step in and invalidate the results. When this has happened in the past, it was done quietly and the scores were changed with minimal consequences to the alleged cheaters. Whistle blowers on the other hand have been fired for reporting real improprieties. (See my posts of August 4 and August 22, 2011.) Now that tenure has been basically abolished by the state, expect very few whistle blowers.

So in Louisiana, we pretend to be preparing all students for college even though everyone involved knows this is a sham. Some of the charter schools in Louisiana heavily advertise their goal of preparing all students for college. According to the charter propaganda the only decision for the child and his/her parents seems to be to choose the ivy league college the student will attend. What a shock it must be to graduating seniors of these so called college prep charters when they find that the only colleges that will accept them are academically suspect private Internet schools whose admission requirements are non-existent. That's because despite "passing" all high school requirements, ACT scores at these schools average well below 20. The so called colleges that are willing to enroll such students depend on heavy government subsidies and student loans. Most of their students drop out of the "college" carrying a heavy burden of debt. Some owners of these Internet colleges are well connected with the politicians in Washington DC, and so far investigations of their terrible dropout numbers have been quashed. Have you noticed that Congress seems to be incapable of correcting corporate abuse and waste of tax dollars if it affects their wealthy contributors?

Take a look at my post on this blog in January 2010 to see how Louisiana is misleading students about college for all. Diane Ravitch recently added a post of her own on the same subject  dated July 4.

So next time our state education officials announce "dramatic progress" think about Campbell's law and how all this is just a house of cards. Someday it will collapse and the deception will be evident. I only hope it happens before we lose too many more dedicated teachers and place too many more students on "nowhere" career paths.


Unknown said...

Thank you for laying the truth out there for those who seek it. It is much easier for most people to accept the propaganda and pretend that vouchers and irrelevant test results will fix the problems. The children and some great teachers will pay the price for this political/corporate dumbing down of society.

Unknown said...

Thank you for laying the truth out there for those who seek it. It is much easier for most people to accept the propaganda and pretend that vouchers and irrelevant test results will fix the problems. The children and some great teachers will pay the price for this political/corporate dumbing down of society.

Unknown said...

Recent changes to the School Performance SPS formula may be interesting. K-8 schools will no longer have attendance or dropout rate factored in to the SPS. 9-12schools will see their SPS scores based 50% on cohort graduation rate and 50% on ACT scores.

Anonymous said...


Very informative piece. Your analysis of grad rates, drop out rates and other calculations performed on ed data is accurate and nearly identical to the analysis done years ago preceding NCLB when The Houston Chronicle was trying to expose the phony numbers game surrounding then President Bush's push for TX style accountabilty for the whole nation despite the 'cooked books' coming out of the Houston ISD.

As if history has a sense of humor, that analysis was done as the ENRON scandal (with books that were also cooked in a strange way) was breaking.