Thursday, July 12, 2012

Spin on Voucher Applications

Lance Hill of the Southern Institute for Education and Research has a slightly different take about the success of the new Jindal voucher program than that of the Baton Rouge Advocate.

State Superintendent John White and the Education Department announced yesterday in a press release that over 10,300 applications for vouchers had been received this year. This was presented as a major success of the program. Last year, there were about 2,000 vouchers that had been limited to the New Orleans area. This year because of the new Jindal voucher law, students attending any public school rated “C” or lower became eligible to apply for a voucher to a private school.

So the Baton Rouge Advocate, taking its cue from Superintendent White led its article on vouchers with the enthusiastic headline:
Voucher demand soars
followed by the Sub head:
10,000 ask to attend new school

The Advocate article goes on to gush about how the voucher applications this year are well above initial estimates.

But the New Orleans Times Picayune which is usually also favorable to the Jindal reforms did a little more digging and found out that there were really less than 9,000 new applications because over a thousand of the applications this year are from students that were already attending the New Orleans voucher schools. So the Advocate was a little bit inaccurate in its reporting of the figures about the number of students wanting to change schools, and I believe totally misleading to its readers by using its headline to promote the spin put out by Superintendent White.

Lance Hill looked at this from a slightly different angle. He started with the number of students and parents who were notified by the State that they were eligible to apply for a voucher and compared it to the number who actually applied and found the percentage of parents who were interested in vouchers. So Lance compared the 9,000 new applications with the 450,000 students who were now eligible to apply and came up with the following suggested headline:
98% of parents say no to vouchers

This just demonstrates how the media can be willingly sucked into the spin on the news generated by the pro-voucher Jindal administration. I think The Advocate editors should be ashamed!

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.