Saturday, November 7, 2015

Online Charters. .. . One of the Worst Ways to Spend our School Taxes!

A new study by CREDO, the Center for Research on Education Outcomes based at Stanford University, finds that students attending online charter schools across the nation perform at significantly lower levels than comparable students in traditional public schools.

The study found that the online charter schools in Louisiana perform on average at the lowest level of all 17 states operating online charter schools. Louisiana now has two online charter schools supported by our tax dollars. They are Louisiana Connections Academy and Louisiana Virtual Charter School. These schools are allowed to recruit public school students from anywhere in the state and they then receive the MFP money dedicated to each such student.

I was shocked to find that the study concludes (see pages 26 and 27 of the CREDO report) that on average students attending online charter schools in Louisiana lost over a year of instruction compared to students attending traditional public schools for each year they attended the online charter! 

Valerie Strauss of The Washington Post summarizes the findings in this way: "It is literally as if the kid did not go to school for an entire year!"

The study shows that students in Louisiana's online charter schools scored .28 of a standard deviation lower in reading than comparable students in traditional public schools. That equated to 200 fewer days of instruction. Louisiana online students scored .34 of a standard deviation lower than comparable students in math. That equated to 240 fewer days of instruction in math.

Most of the for-profit online charter schools in other states also had negative results!

In Louisiana, online charter schools receive 90% of the per pupil MFP allocation that would have been allocated to their home district schools. But Louisiana's online charter schools save thousands of dollars on each student based on a business model that does not require school buildings, school and classroom upkeep, utilities, transportation to schools, the need to provide clerical services, and other support services. The charter school operators do not participate in the teacher retirement system saving approximately 25 percent of payroll. With no restrictions on spending imposed by our legislature, they can convert some of these savings to advertising to constantly recruit students and the rest goes to profit.

As I was writing this, a commercial just came over my radio advertising the Louisiana Connections Academy with this message. "Connections Academy, providing online education to k-12 students for students needing 'extra attention'".

So with this "extra attention" students get less education in a school year than they would have gotten by just skipping school for a full year! To my knowledge parents of these students have no way of knowing that their child got a "worse than nothing" education. We are a consumer oriented society and our decisions are often driven more by advertising than by facts and data. Meanwhile our Louisiana taxpayers are contributing in the neighborhood of $10,000 per child for absolutely nothing! Under the leadership of our absentee Governor Jindal, our legislators voted for this use of our school tax money several years ago. In addition, our State Board of Education (BESE) and our State Department of Education under the leadership of Superintendent John White have allowed these private companies to take our money for zero progress (on average).

I met with John White over two years ago and asked him how he planned to insure that the new Course Choice providers and the virtual school providers would comply with Louisiana's mandatory school attendance law? That law requires local schools to take attendance of students every day and to track down and educate any students not attending regularly. In traditional schools, students cannot get credit for courses if they have more than 10 unexcused absences in one semester. He responded that the new approach he favored would be to simply focus on results rather than the statistics of school attendance. So my question now is, "If the result of this approach produces less than nothing, how does the LDOE justify continued payment of my tax dollars to these operators?"

I have felt from the very beginning that this model of delivery of K-12 education was a bad one and that for most students it would not be effective. On the other hand many local school districts provide their students with online courses which are carefully monitored by local teachers. Depending on the type of student enrolled, online instruction can be successful. My own grandson took a couple of online courses in the Zachary school system and tested very well at the end of the course and got full credits. But he happened to be an exceptionally well motivated student and he received close supervision. The for-profit model of online schooling simply does not work for many less motivated students partly because it is very difficult to insure proper student engagement. In fact the CREDO study cites a survey of principals of online schools which lists the lack of engagement of students and parents as the most serious concern of the school administrators. Yet they can't seem to correct the problem.

I have had email conversations with one teacher who works for one of the Louisiana online charters and believe her to be sincere and dedicated to providing good service to her assigned students. The problem is not necessarily with the teachers.

This is a scenario of what I believe often happens: The student signs on at 8:00 am from a charter supplied computer at his home and begins his lessons. At 8:30 he takes an open ended break for breakfast. So at 9:30 he signs back on. At 10:00 the phone rings and he stops to talk with a friend for 45 minutes. Then he switches to an online game site and plays for a couple of hours. Now its time for lunch. He finally gets back to the computer by 2:00 pm and works for about 45 minutes. Then he decides that it is just about time for school to let out and he goes on to other things. His mother gets home from work and asks how did the classes go? He responds that he did just fine. But the real fact is that he spent only about an hour and 45 minutes when he should have attended school for a minimum of 5 hours.

The problem with this for-profit model is that it considers profit as the top priority. So if it becomes apparent that a student is not completing his/her lessons, and is not devoting the necessary online time to school, the online company sees to it that the maximum profit is milked from the government before any actions are taken to correct the problem. Usually the student finally drops out and registers back into the real public schools while the online charter recruits a replacement. I believe such practices should be ruled as violations of Louisiana's mandatory attendance law and the school should not be allowed to operate if it cannot verify that students are in attendance. In this case, attendance would be solid participation for the same amount of time the student would be in a traditional school. We don't allow students in traditional school to skip classes. Why do we allow it for online schools? There should be a way of monitoring time on task and work produced each day. Otherwise no funding of such operations can be justified.

But the real issue is how do we stop the campaign contributions from online charter operators which are using some of our tax dollars to buy the support of our legislators and other elected officials? This is a major flaw in this system that I believe amounts to corruption. When public school advocates ask legislators why such schools continue to get funding, the most common answer is this: "Look it's the parents' tax dollars. Why can't the child take his MFP allocation with him to a "choice" school just like he takes his backpack to the school of his/her parents choice? I believe parents deserve a choice. Why not let the parent choose what is best for her/his child?"

Let me tell you what is wrong with the above example. First of all it is not the parent's tax dollars. On average, at least two thirds of school tax dollars for each MFP unit come from taxpayers who do not have a child in school. We pay these taxes for the public good, to make sure that we have an educated population capable of becoming productive citizens. Those MFP dollars do not belong to the parent. They belong to all of us. All of us as taxpayers have a right to demand accountability from the online charter operators. Better yet, we should have a right to insist that they stop receiving our taxes!

But that's not about to happen as long as regular taxpayers and professional educator voices are overpowered by the big business lobby with their huge campaign contributions. Right now the main opposition to school takeover by the privatizers are our professional teacher unions. Yet their political action arms can only afford to spend less than one-tenth what the big business pacs are spending to elect anti-pulic education candidates!

Regular voters are certainly not being heard by BESE.  This blog pointed out that 6 out of 8 BESE members had their positions bought recently with 3.5 million dollars from out-of-state contributors as directed by businessman Lane Grigsby and LABI. The big business lobby has no clue about how education should be run, but they are still determined to buy control of it. They certainly know how to convert those millions of out-of-state contributions into television ads and massive mailings and hit pieces against good people running for BESE. One particularly vicious ad created a fake TV news story slandering BESE member Carolyn Hill so badly that the stations pulled it off the air, but not until after the damage had been done.

Here is what is really ironic and insulting to teachers about the attack on our public schools by the big business community. The leaders of LABI have succeeded to some extent in demonizing the teacher unions by claiming that they only exist to defend incompetent teachers, and work for pay raises when the real truth is that the teaching profession probably contains much fewer slackers than any other profession. You just can't survive as a teacher in today's schools unless you put every bit of energy possible into your job. This big business propaganda is actually believed by some teachers at the very time that these super rich corporate leaders are privatizing our schools and attacking teacher job security, and retirement benefits as overly generous and changing laws so that teachers are denied step increases!

Much of the money for this purchase of the control of education comes from the likes of the Walton family heirs. They are the children of the Wal Mart genius Sam Walton. They are not entrepreneurs and never ran a business. They just inherited a huge fortune and now they fancy themselves as education reformers whose goal is to privatize as much of public education as they possibly can. You probably have heard their commercials about how the Walton foundation wants to insure that all families have access to quality school choices. All of this without a shred of evidence that it works. So the online charters managers are getting a assistance in buying BESE and legislative votes from the misguided philanthropists.

Readers, I feel I must ask you this question: When are we going to put a stop to this power grab of the super rich over our public schools? Most public educators I know have been silent and basically unwilling to confront this attack on our public schools. The majority don't join their teacher unions which often represent the only real challenge to this privatization of schools and destruction of the teaching profession. Some actually join the A+PEL  group (because it is cheap and markets itself as professional) while it is firmly allied with LABI and supports every attack on public schools and the teaching profession. As long as we insist on burying our heads in the sand, we are giving up our democratic rights as citizens. As things are headed now, the education profession will be dismantled so that anyone with a degree of any kind who is willing to teach test-prep will be hired at the lowest salary possible without benefits, and the privatizers will get rich. Our children will pay the price.

If you are an educator or a concerned parent, one small thing you can do to fight back is to join my Defenders of Public Education email group. Just send me an email to and say "sign me up". Include your zip code so that I can put you on the correct email list to receive information on key legislative and BESE actions. Then when I send you notices of upcoming votes, you can do your part in expressing your concerns to your elected officials. 

But the most effective thing you can do, if you consider yourself a professional educator, is to join and become active in your teacher union!

Tuesday, November 3, 2015

Louisiana's PARCC-like Tests Not Compatible

The following is a guest post by math teacher and band director, Herb Bassett. Herb asked me to include this special note to our readers:

I have concerns that Louisiana's PARCC ELA and Math test results are suspiciously high. In this blog entry I compare PARCC results across five states to those states' performances on the PARCC and the NAEP, the gold-standard of cross-state education comparisons, to build the case that our PARCC scores are not compatible with other states and internally inconsistent as an indicator of being on track for college or careers. The main selling points of the PARCC tests was that the results could be compared across states and that there would be a universal measure or readiness for college or careers.

The PARCC is a new test. All of the other PARCC states administered a version of the test developed by the test company Pearson. Louisiana, however, created is own version of the test through the test company DRC, and Louisiana was ultimately responsible for guaranteeing that the grading would be consistent with the other states.

The discrepancies with scores in other states, and the internal inconsistency of our own results raise important questions about whether or not the results are believable and meaningful.

Herb Bassett 

State Superintendent John White's October 27, 2015 Superintendent's message  linked to this quote: 

"NAEP’s definition of readiness for the next level of education is “Proficient,” the second highest level on the test. Louisiana has aligned its definition of readiness with NAEP’s by designating “Mastery,” also the second highest level as indicative of readiness. "

White's rhetoric does not bear up under scrutiny: Louisiana's "PARCC" ELA Mastery (level four proficiency) rate is actually not at all in line with its NAEP Reading proficiency rate:

This year, fourth and eighth grade students took both the PARCC tests and the NAEP. The National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) ELA and Math tests have been administered nationally to a sampling of fourth, eighth and twelfth grade students every other year since at least the early 1970's. The NAEP is used to track long-term trends in the states and the nation. 

The relative comparison between the Louisiana's NAEP and "PARCC" results when referenced to the performance of other states raises questions about the accuracy of Louisiana's "PARCC" tests 

Louisiana's "PARCC" ELA level four proficiency rates are shown by the solid red line above. The endpoints of the dotted red line below it are Louisiana's NAEP Reading proficiency rates. Louisiana's  "PARCC"-to-NAEP gaps are the widest, eleven and seventeen points. New Jersey has the next widest gaps, but its higher scores are not directly comparable to Louisiana's.

Ohio's, Illinois', and New Mexico's PARCC ELA and NAEP Reading proficiency rates all align within four points. Louisiana's fourth and eighth grade PARCC proficiency rates equal or exceed those of Ohio and Illinois, so why is Louisiana so far below those states on the NAEP? 

In other states, a PARCC ELA score of proficient means that a child is very likely to score proficient on the NAEP Reading test. In Louisiana, a "PARCC" ELA score of proficient means that a child has at best a two-out-of-three chance of scoring proficient on the NAEP Reading test.

So, proficient on Louisiana's "PARCC" does not mean the same thing as proficient on the PARCC in Ohio, Illinois, and New Mexico and it does not align with proficient on the NAEP.

This misalignment renders the first two promises for our new "PARCC" tests empty:

1. The "PARCC" test will let us compare our results with other states. 
2. We will raise the bar to "level four" instead of "level three" for the students. 
3. The "PARCC" test will show if students are on track for college or careers. 

Louisiana's "PARCC" fails a common sense test on the last promise as well.

If PARCC reliably indicates being on track for college and careers, grade-to-grade movement would be small; if thirty-six percent of fourth graders are indicated to be on track for college or careers, it makes sense that about the same percentage of fifth graders would be on track and so on. 

Ohio, Illinois, New Mexico, and New Jersey (grade four and after) show gradual movement across grades on the PARCC. Proficiency rates are stable within four points per grade. 

Louisiana's grade-to-grade up-and-down swings are wider and mostly go against-the-grain compared to Ohio, Illinois, New Mexico and New Jersey. Louisiana's instability raises yet more questions about its "PARCC" tests and how its scores were computed. 

The other PARCC states administered tests prepared by the testing company Pearson. Louisiana's test was acquired through a different testing company, DRC.

According to LDOE, Louisiana's tests included items developed through the PARCC process, but the test form was developed by the Louisiana Educator Leader Cadre and Department staff. This also left either LDOE or DRC to equate Louisiana's form to others administered in other PARCC states. (This is why I have distinguished Louisiana's test with the use of quotation marks.)

The PARCC Consortium set the cut scores for the five achievement levels and Louisiana adopted those cut scores; they are points in the scaled scores (which range from 650 to 850) that divide the scores into the five performance categories. However, there is another important step in shaping the final results.

Raw scores - the number of items a student answered correctly - must be converted to scaled scores through test equating. Even with the same cut scores, the "man behind the curtain" is the test equating process whereby the difficulty of the questions is taken into account and the numbers of correct answers required to achieve the different cut scores are set into a transformation table. Different transformation tables are made for different forms of the test.

The transformation tables could significantly affect the final results without altering the cut scores.

LDOE and/or DRC had considerable control over the test equating process. Louisiana likely had greater control over the final results than the states that administered the Pearson-created PARCC test. 

Louisiana's test making and equating process has yielded "PARCC" results higher than would be expected when referenced to the NAEP and compared to other PARCC states

In Math, Louisiana's seventh-to-eighth-grade "PARCC" proficiency rate spike is puzzling. It is inconsistent with its own NAEP trend and the PARCC results of Ohio, New Mexico and New Jersey. (New Jersey DOE says the low eighth grade PARCC proficiency is due to high performing students being allowed to take the Algebra PARCC test instead of the eighth grade test.):  

All of the other states proficiency rates in Math are lower on the PARCC than the NAEP; Louisiana's rates are the opposite. We could conclude that the PARCC Math test was harder than the NAEP in the other states, but the "PARCC" was easier than the NAEP in Louisiana. Why would this be?

Are we to believe that only 22 percent of Louisiana's seventh graders on track for college or careers then suddenly 32 percent of its eighth graders are? Do we really believe "PARCC" results that say that Louisiana sends more eighth graders to high school on track for college and careers than Ohio and Illinois, even though Louisiana's NAEP proficiency rate is barely half theirs? Does Louisiana really have three times as many eighth graders on track for college or careers as New Mexico even though New Mexico has a higher eighth grade NAEP Math proficiency rate?

In the above charts, the other states very credibly compare to each other in relative performance on the PARCC and NAEP. Louisiana's comparative results are completely inconsistent with theirs. 

Louisiana's "PARCC" results simply do not compare to other states. Louisiana's "PARCC" scores are unbelievably high when referenced to the NAEP both in the ELA/Reading and Math comparisons.

How then does Louisiana's "PARCC" compare to its previous LEAP and iLEAP?

Louisiana's "PARCC" level four is a lower bar than the previous LEAP/iLEAP level four (Mastery).

Below are the 2015 "PARCC" ELA results by grade compared to the 2014 LEAP/iLEAP. The charts show the percent of students attaining each achievement level. The bottom of green (M) indicates the minimum percentile rank of students achieving the new definition of proficiency, level four. 

At every grade level in ELA, more students achieved Mastery or above on the "PARCC" (2015) than previously did on the LEAP/iLEAP (2014) (examine the bottom of green (M)). The shorter blue bands (A), however, show that the "PARCC" is more selective than the LEAP/iLEAP for level 5. 

We should assume that actual student performance was stable between the two years and that the dramatic shift is a result of the tests not aligning rather than a sudden jolt of improvement in student performance. No attempt was made to statistically equate the "PARCC" to the LEAP/iLEAP.

John White stated that the bar would be raised from level three (Basic) to level four (Mastery) as the definition of proficiency by 2025.  He did not mention lowering the bar for level four. 

In eighth grade Math, the requirement for level 4 (Mastery) has also been lowered, greatly increasing the percentage of students scoring Mastery or higher. Meanwhile the requirement for level 3 (Basic) has been raised in each grade: 

To summarize, Louisiana created its own form of the PARCC test and was responsible for the test equating. The promises made for the new tests have all been broken somehow in that process:

1. The results are out of line with other states when using the NAEP as a reference point. 

2. Level 4 on the "PARCC" has been set to be less selective than Mastery on the former LEAP and iLEAP tests, and it is less selective than NAEP proficiency, resulting in a lower-than-implied bar for the new 2025 proficiency standard.

3. "PARCC" grade-to-grade fluctuations yield an inconsistent measure of college or career readiness. 

The comparisons raise serious questions about how Louisiana's tests were made and how Louisiana's raw scores were converted into scaled scores. Results which are unreasonable and are not corroborated by other measures do not yield confidence.

The process of test equating needs close scrutiny; due to the legislative requirement that the 2015-16 test be less than fifty percent PARCC items, we can expect LDOE to go through the equating process again and it may once more create results that bear little relation to either our testing history or the results in other states. 

Herb Bassett, Grayson, LA


Data for the charts came from the Ohio, Illinois, New Mexico and Louisiana Departments of Education websites. New Jersey data is from Ohio and Illinois results are preliminary and include only the online version which was taken by about two-thirds of their students. However, Ohio DOE has stated that it expects the pencil and paper versions to yield comparable results.