Thursday, October 29, 2015

How Does Louisiana Rank in the NAEP Rat Race?

Superintendent John White loves his job of lording it over Louisiana education and he wants to keep doing it.  In a major effort to help him keep his job, his out-of-state privatizer friends just spent approximately 3.5 million dollars to elect 6 BESE members who are committed to keeping him in that job. But White has to show progress in Louisiana student test performance so that everyone can see that we need him to run education and to keep cracking the whip on our "lazy" Louisiana educators. He wants to remind us that we just can't run education effectually without him. So when the most recent NAEP test results came out this week, White's crack team of number crunchers and spin masters went to work and cranked out a press release pointing to rising scores for Louisiana students.

This Advocate story  picked up the press release and focused on Louisiana's comparison with the 50 other states and the District of Columba. The article compares the just released 2015 NAEP test scores with those of 2013 and 2009. Sure enough it looks like White's leadership is producing positive results. The latest statistics show that 4th graders did a little better than in 2013, moving up from a ranking of 47th to 43rd in reading. The ranking for 4th grade math improved from 49th to 45th.

Louisiana students in 8th grade showed no progress however, over 2013. 8th grade reading stayed at 48th place and 8th grade math students dropped from 48th to 49th. So even though there seems to be greater improvement than backsliding, The Advocate headline writers did not do White any favors when they  titled the Article: Louisiana again ranks near bottom in reading and math . . .

That's surprising because The Advocate usually bends over backwards to try to make White and his TFAers look as good as possible. But maybe for once the Advocate editors could not ignore the fact that two year improvements in test performance are unstable and often cannot be attributed to recent policies. There is a natural time lag when you are dealing with such slow moving changes. It would probably be more legitimate to attribute any changes in this year's NAEP scores to White's predecessor, Paul Pastorek.

Another interesting fact about the latest NAEP test shows a small drop nationwide in both reading and math. This does not look good for the Common Core initiative, but I don't think this slight drop is significant. Scores on NAEP may have gone down a little because most students were so exhausted after taking the Common Core tests this Spring that took up to 8 hours each. That could have caused them to sort of burn out on the NAEP and be a little more careless than usual.

My theory about NAEP performance is a little different from those who think that the latest education policy causes the slight changes in NAEP results we see every two years. I just don't think you can attribute slight improvement in rankings to anyone in particular. That's because the Louisiana NAEP rankings compared to other states are somewhat fluid from year to year. We can't really blame anyone or give credit to anyone or to any policy. The major trends have to be studied over a period of 5 to 10 years. Let me give you some additional statistics to make my point.

How Louisiana Students Compare on NAEP Over a 10 Year Period

Louisiana had already started putting more emphasis on teaching reading and math skills even before Pastorek and White entered the scene. Accountability testing was in place in 2005, and the NAEP testing in Spring of 2005, a few months before Katrina hit, showed that Louisiana was doing a little better on NAEP compared to other states than we are doing now. But there is almost no meaning to the slight jockeying for a position just a little better than the bottom because it amounts to nothing more than a rat race. The same states with the same disadvantaged students just trade places from year to year. Lets compare 2015 results to 2005, which was just before Katrina wiped away the New Orleans school system and according to Arne Duncan, Louisiana was supposedly given a chance to finally become a leader in school reform. Here is how Louisiana stood in comparison to the other states near the bottom of the rankings.

4th grade math: In 2005, Louisiana ranked just above Alabama, Arizona, Mississippi, New Mexico Hawaii, and Washington D.C. in 4th grade math. Now, in 2015 Louisiana ranks above Alabama, California, New Mexico, and District of Columbia in 4th grade math. Over the ten year period, Louisiana has dropped 2 places in the rankings between 2005 and 2015.

4th grade reading: In 2005, Louisiana ranked  just above Alabama, Arizona, California, Mississippi, Nevada, New Mexico, and District of Columbia in 4th grade reading. Now, in 2015, Louisiana ranks just above Alaska, Arizona, California, Mississippi, Nevada, New Mexico, and Washington D. C. in 4th grade reading. Over the 10 year period, Louisiana is still at exactly the same level in the rankings.

8th grade Math: In 2005, Louisiana ranked just above Alabama, Hawaii, Mississippi, and New Mexico and District of Columbia. Now in 2015, Louisiana ranks just above Alabama and District of Columbia. Over the 10 year period,  Louisiana dropped three places in the rankings.

8th grade Reading: In 2005 Louisiana ranked just above Alabama, California, Hawaii, Mississippi, New Mexico and Washington D. C. Now, in 2015 Louisiana ranks just above Mississippi, New Mexico and Washington D. C. Over the 10 year period, Louisiana dropped 3 places in the most recent rankings.

My point in giving this comparison, is that it makes no sense at all for our education officials to brag about moving up a few places in the rankings because the whole thing just amounts to a rat race with the low performers jockeying back and forth in the bottom ten or so places. We just trade places with the same states over and over! The only real factor that influences the rankings is the level of poverty of our students compared to other states.

A sociologist would have a great time explaining why the same ten states stay at the bottom of the rankings year after year. Look at the huge low wage Hispanic population in California, the dirt poor First American populations in New Mexico and Arizona and the low income African American populations in Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama and the District of Columbia. It is just so clear to anyone with a brain that poverty rules the day when educational systems are ranked. But the reformers keep telling us that poverty is just an excuse for ineffective educators.

Here is another important issue. Since all educational systems have been forced to participate in the Test/Retest and Test Prep cycle caused by No Child Left Behind and then Race to the Top, there has been a modest rise in NAEP scores across the board in all states in the last ten years. But the problem is that with stack ranking, you can never achieve the Lake Wobegon phenomenon of getting all states above average! The same 10 states will be at the bottom of the rankings no matter how much you punish and reward teachers and school administrators! To paraphrase James Carville,"It's the poverty stupid!"

If John White is so smart, why can't he figure that out that as long as Louisiana continues to be in the top ten in poverty, we will remain in the bottom ten in school performance? Actually I believe White figured this out some time ago. That's why he and his testing company quietly lowered the raw cut scores for LEAP, iLEAP, and end-of-course tests in recent years. Then presto our grade level performance seems to have improved, our graduation rate has improved, and it really looks like Louisiana is heading up.  Recently he got his rubber stamp BESE to adopt the lowest raw cut scores in the history of our state for the new PARCC-like test. To be fair, there is some apparent improvement in actual testing performance, but I attribute that to this all-out fanatic focus on mostly the few tested subjects at the expense of all other worthwhile parts of the curriculum. We have just about killed vocational/technical education just at the time Louisiana needed to ramp up such opportunities for our students in the skilled and service areas. Now we are belatedly trying to push Jump Start, but our accountability system mostly rewards college prep measures instead of the broad curriculum needed.

Do you know what would take real educational courage and leadership? Just convince the legislature and the public that we need to quit the testing rat race and let our educators start addressing the broad needs and interests of all students. Let's all work harder to get real and positive parental involvement and accountability, and develop good positive discipline at every school built around a development of a love for learning. Then let's build a strong curriculum of all important subjects, and let our students and their parents choose the best pathway for each child. Finally we need to find a way to reward and encourage those educators who work in the most challenging schools with the most at-risk students instead of branding them all as failures. 

Pease listen to this interview with principal Carol Burus of The Network for Public Education if you really want to know what a real professional educator thinks needs to be done to improve education.

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