Thursday, November 14, 2019

Poverty vs District School Performance

This ranking lists all Louisiana school systems and certain individual schools in order of increasing poverty. The table includes the district performance scores and the letter grade as assigned by the LA Department of Education for 2019. 
(Click on the image to magnify)

It is noteworthy that the districts and schools with the smallest percentage of high poverty students achieved the highest district and/or school performance scores and the highest letter grades. Conversely, the three school districts with the greatest student poverty received the lowest performance scores and the lowest letter grades in the state.

The highest scoring schools in the state are the school for math/science/arts and the LSU lab school. These are selective admissions schools but they also have the lowest percentages of high poverty students in the state.

The Zachary Community school district, which has the highest district performance score, has only 3 percentage points higher poverty than the wealthiest school system . The school systems in Louisiana that rank in the top 10% according to wealth, with the exception of Livingston Parish, all  received "A" grades from the LDOE.

A few good words about the Zachary Community school system
The Zachary school system is celebrating its 15th year in a row as the highest performing school system in the state based on standardized test scores. Zachary administrators and teachers certainly deserve much credit. My wife and I both taught in the Zachary school system many years ago,  long before school systems were ranked by student test scores. It was an excellent school system even then. Like all other school systems, Zachary teachers spend a lot of time preparing students for the almighty annual state tests. But in my opinion, that is not what makes Zachary a great school system. The teachers and administrators in Zachary have always taught the whole student with great attention to each student's talents, strengths, and weaknesses. Teachers are allowed to use great creativity in addition to test prep. My grandson who was a co-valedictorian at Zachary also enjoyed taking great courses in shop, art and athletics.

Very few school systems have managed to perform better than expected
There are four school systems that score significantly above their expected scores according to the level of poverty:  Plaquemines Parish which achieved an "A" performance with a 70% poverty rate and Catahoula, St. Bernard and St Mary Parishes which achieved  "B" grades with 78% poverty rates.

However, with few exceptions, school systems generally perform closely as an inverse proportion to their poverty ranking.

Another exception to the rule above  is represented by the three virtual schools in the state. (look up how they rate on the test rankings) These schools all score lower than would be predicted by their poverty rates.  If test scores are so important, why are these schools provided 90% of the student MFP funding, even though they do not have to pay for buildings, buses, custodians, librarians, school lunch and many other costs that real schools are expected to provide with almost the same funding?
With very little variation, districts' performance scores are inversely proportional to the rate of poverty.

The creation of so called "Recovery Districts" that are supposed to turn around so called "failing schools" have had almost no impact. Just see where the two remaining Recovery districts are performing in the table above. The New Orleans school district has only recently been restored control of its Recovery district.  Their school performance score places Orleans in the bottom 20% of a state that is ranked third to last among all states. his expensive program has done little to improve test scores.

School performance scores and letter grades based on test results and graduation rates have encouraged corruption
The pressure on schools to raise test scores has produced more corruption than actual improvement in student academic achievement. Some school administrators, particularly in takeover charter schools whose continued existence may depend on student test scores, have devised creative ways of cheating to raise their school performance score. Cheating is made more likely by the LDOE policy that allegations of wrongdoing at a school are primarily investigated by the local district or charter operator. That allows for a lot of cover up. But some of the most blatant cases have come to light. These include revelations of answer corrections by computer erasure analysis. But no one goes to jail like the teachers and administrators in Atlanta who had their test corrections investigated by the FBI. In Louisiana, where the school letter grade is determined by several factors, we are getting more creative cheating such as the recent "fix your grade books" scheme or the awarding of diplomas to half a 12th grade class by awarding credits that were not earned.

Why does Louisiana stigmatize and demoralize educators whose only apparent sin is that they serve high poverty students?
Schools are not buildings. Schools are communities of human beings composed of students who are served by dedicated, caring,  teachers and administrators. The data above demonstrates that there is a strong correlation between standardized test scores and the rate of poverty of students who make up the student body of a particular school. The American Statistical Association has determined that the impact of teacher quality in a school accounts for only between one and 14% of student test performance. What is to be gained by spending hundreds of millions of dollars every year on standardized testing when we can already accurately predict the average test scores in a school by the level of poverty of its students. BESE no longer requires students to pass these tests to be promoted, so why give them? Unfortunately, because of the stigma produced by low school grades, it is only that much harder to attract the best and most dedicated teachers to schools that serve the neediest students.