First Person

ELA Scores Are Up–But by How Much?

Yesterday, New York released the results of the 2009 English Language Arts (ELA) assessment administered in January to students in grades 3 through 8 across the state.  Overall, there was a sizeable increase from 2008 to 2009 in the percentage of students who achieved the standard of proficiency in ELA, from 68% of all students in grades 3 through 8 in 2008 to 77% in 2009.  In contrast, the scale scores which underlie the proficiency standards did not increase as much, rising an average of four points across the six grades in 2009, just one point more than the increase observed in 2008.

In New York City, the results were even more striking, with the percentage of students in grade 3 through 8 who reached the standard of proficiency in ELA rising from 58% in 2008 to 69% in 2009, an increase of 11 percentage points.  The increase in sixth grade is astonishingly large;  whereas 53% of New York City sixth-graders attained the proficiency standard in 2008, 73% did so in 2009, a whopping increase of 20 percentage points.  Taken at face value, figures such as these suggest that students’ English Language Arts achievement increased dramatically from 2008 to 2009.  Some observers, including me, worry that the increases exceed the gains in student learning that could reasonably be expected from changes in instruction occurring over the course of a single year.  The changes could reflect the kind of score inflation that testing expert Dan Koretz wrote about in his recent book Measuring Up. 

There are multiple ways to look at the distribution of ELA performance in 2008 and 2009, and other approaches yield a different estimate of the magnitude of the gains.  The percentage of students meeting the proficiency standard represents a binary threshold—a student is either above the bar or below it.  If you believe that the proficiency standard means something beyond the context of a particular test, then increasing the number and percentage of students who achieve that standard is an important accomplishment.  But the percentage of students who meet the standard tells you very little about the performance of low-achieving students who are well below the proficiency bar, and very little about the performance of high-achieving students who are well above the proficiency bar.  The average scale score takes into account the performance of all students who take the state ELA test, and changes in average scale scores over time may be as meaningful, and perhaps more so, than changes in proficiency rates.

New York City has an unfortunate habit of referring to changes over time on the state assessments as increases or decreases in “points,” where the points refer to percentage point differences in proficiency rates from year to year.  This is potentially misleading because percentage points are an arbitrary metric when applied to a threshold measure such as the percentage of students who are proficient.  Still, comparisons over time that are made in terms of percentage points aren’t going away.  The challenge is figuring out if they are large or small.

Another way of representing changes over time is to look at the extent to which the distribution of scale scores in a year has shifted from the distribution of scores in the prior year.  For example, we can look at the mean scale score for the ELA assessment in a given grade in 2009 and see how much larger or smaller it is than the mean scale score for that grade in 2008.  In New York City, the average scale scores increased from four to 10 points between 2008 and 2009.  Here again, the issue is whether this is a little or a lot. To gauge this, I’m representing the scale score increase in relation to the 2008 score distribution.  If the 2008 average scale score is at the 50th percentile of the 2008 distribution, and assuming that the 2008 distribution follows the familiar bell-shaped normal curve, how many percentiles higher is the average scale score in 2009?** 

The figure below shows both the percentage point increase between 2008 and 2009 in the percent of students who achieved the ELA proficiency standard in grades 3 through 8, as well as the percentile increase for the average score from 2008 to 2009.  In five of the six grades, the percentage point increase in the percent of students who achieved the proficiency standard exceeded the percentile increase from 2008 to 2009, and often substantially so.  Still, the percentile increases are nothing to sneeze at.


How might we explain why the percentage point increase in the percent of students who achieve the proficiency standard exceeds the percentile increase in the average scale score?  One possibility is that the gains that were observed from 2008 to 2009 were concentrated in the range of scores near the proficiency threshold.  Boosting the scores of students near the threshold just a bit could push them over the bar without dramatically increasing the overall distribution of achievement.  We can’t be sure that this is what’s happening, but the figure below gives a graphic representation of the process.  The phenomenon at issue is known as focusing on the “bubble kids,” those students whose performance is just below the threshold.  In the figure, moving the three “bubble kids” from just below the proficiency bar to just above it increases the percentage of students who are proficient from 43% to 67%, a 24 percentage point increase. My colleague Jennifer Jennings was influential in bringing to national attention the incentives that threshold-based accountability systems such as No Child Left Behind create for focusing on the bubble kids to the exclusion of other students.


I’d love to believe that the increases in performance observed on the ELA assessment in New York City and across the state represent real and enduring changes in what students know.  Seeing gains of similar magnitude on the 2009 National Assessment of Educational Progress would go a long way in convincing me.

**The percentile increases may be overly generous, because they are based on the amount of spread in the 2008 score distribution in New York City, which in some grades was substantially smaller than was observed in those grades in the years 2002 through 2007.  If the standard deviation used to calculate these percentile gains were larger, the percentile gains would appear smaller.

First Person

I covered Tennessee’s ed beat for Chalkbeat. Here’s what I learned.

PHOTO: Marta W. Aldrich
Grace Tatter covers a press conference at the Tennessee State Capitol in 2015.

For three years, I covered the Statehouse for Chalkbeat Tennessee, reporting on how policies from Nashville trickled down into more than 1,800 public schools across the state.

Now I’m starting back to school myself, pursuing graduate studies aimed at helping me to become a better education journalist. I’m taking with me six things I learned on the job about public education in Tennessee.

1. Apathy is often cited as a major problem facing education. That’s not the case in Tennessee.

I heard from hundreds of parents, educators, and students who were passionate about what’s happening — good and bad — inside of schools. I covered crowded school board meetings and regularly scrambled for an open seat at legislative hearings where parents had filled the room after driving since dawn to beat the opening gavel. Not incidentally, those parents usually came from communities with the “worst” schools and the lowest test scores. While many disagreements exist about the best way to run schools, there is no shortage of people, particularly parents and educators, who care.

2. Tennessee has one of the most fascinating education stories in America.

I’ve had a front-row seat to massive changes in K-12 education under reforms ushered in by Race to the Top — an overhaul being tracked closely well beyond the state’s borders. But the national interest and import doesn’t end with changes stemming from the $500 million federal award. Tennessee is home to some of the nation’s premier education researchers, making its classrooms laboratories for new ideas about pre-K, school turnaround, and literacy instruction, just to name a few. And at the legislature, more lobbyists are devoted to education than to most any other cause. A lot of eyes are on Tennessee schools.

3. The education community is not as divided as it looks.

During the course of just a few years, I watched state lawmakers change their positions on accountability and school vouchers. I witnessed “anti-charter” activists praise charter leaders for their work. I chronicled task force meetings where state leaders who were committed to standardized testing found middle ground with classroom educators concerned that it’s gone too far. In short, a lot of people listened to each other and changed their minds. Watching such consensus-building reminded me that, while there are no simple debates about education, there is a widespread commitment to making it better.

4. Money matters.

Even when stories don’t seem to be about money, they usually are. How much money is being spent on testing, teacher salaries, school discipline reform? How much should be available for wraparound services? Why do some schools have more money than others? Is there enough to go around? Tennessee leaders have steadily upped public education spending, but the state still invests less than most other states, and the disparities among districts are gaping. That’s why more than a handful of school districts are battling with the state in court. Conversations about money are inextricable from conversations about improving schools.

5. Race is a significant education issue, but few leaders are willing to have that conversation.

More than 60 years after Brown v. Board of Education, Tennessee’s schools are largely racially segregated. Yet most policymakers tread lightly, if ever, into conversations about achieving real racial integration. And in many cases — such as a 2011 law enabling mostly white suburban Shelby County towns to secede from the mostly black Memphis district — they’ve actually gone backwards. Then there’s the achievement data. The annual release of test scores unleashes a flurry of conversation around the racial achievement gap. But the other 11 months of the year, I heard little about whether state and local policies are closing those gaps — or contributing to them — or the historical reasons why the gaps exist in the first place. To be sure, state leadership is trying to address some of Tennessee’s shortcomings. For example, the State Department of Education has launched modestly funded initiatives to recruit more teachers of color. But often, race and racism are the elephants in the room.

6. Still, there’s lots to celebrate.

If there were unlimited hours in the day, I could have written thousands of stories about what’s going right in public education. Every day, I received story ideas about collaborations with NASA in Oak Ridge, high school trips to Europe from Memphis, gourmet school lunches in Tullahoma, and learning partnerships with the Nashville Zoo. Even in schools with the steepest challenges, they were stories that inspire happiness and hope. They certainly inspired me.

Grace Tatter graduated from public schools in Winston-Salem, N.C., and received her bachelor’s degree in history from the University of North Carolina. She’s now pursuing a master’s degree in specialized studies at the Harvard Graduate School of Education.

First Person

I’m a Houston geography teacher. This is my plan for our first day back — as soon as it arrives

PHOTO: Creative Commons / Texas Military Department
Texas National Guard soldiers arrive in Houston, Texas to aid citizens in heavily flooded areas from the storms of Hurricane Harvey.

Hurricane Harvey has upended so many things here in Houston, where I am starting my third year as a teacher. One of them is the lesson I am planning for the first day of school — as soon as it arrives.

This upheaval is nothing compared to what people across the city have faced, including my students, who have been sending me photos of evacuation boats going past their houses.

But it is fundamental to the task of being a teacher at a time of crisis. As an A.P. Human Geography teacher, my job is to help students make connections between the geography concepts we are learning in class and their real lives: Does Houston look like the models of urban development we study? Does their family history include a migration?

Before the storm, my thinking went like this: I am white and was born in England and most of my students are Hispanic, many with parents who were born in other countries. I was excited for us to share and compare our different stories. My students last year were shocked and fascinated when they discovered that my white, middle-aged father who is a university professor was applying for a green card, just as many of their family members were.

Now, Hurricane Harvey has underlined for me the importance of those real-world connections. As I looked at the photos from my students, I was struck by how geography concepts can affect us in very real — even life-threatening — ways.

I had planned to teach a lesson at the end of the year about how urbanization affects the environment. The lesson looks at how urbanization can exacerbate flooding: for example, how paving over grassy areas can increase the speed with which rain reaches the bayous, causing the water levels to rise faster. I would then have students evaluate different policies cities can adopt to mitigate that risk, such as encouraging the building on brownfield rather than greenfield sites and passing laws to protect farmland — options that have significant benefits but also significant costs.

I have decided to move this lesson up in the curriculum and teach it when we have school again. School is scheduled to start again on Tuesday, though at this stage everything is provisional, as each hour we find out about more families that have had their homes destroyed by the rising waters. It is still unclear how all our staff, let alone students, will get to school.

I am worried that the lesson could re-traumatize students who have experienced so much trauma in the past few days. I know I will need to make an active effort to make students feel comfortable stepping into the hall if they are feeling overwhelmed. However, my experiences with the recent presidential election make me think that this lesson is exactly what some students might need.

After the election, many students were genuinely confused about what had happened. One question in particular was on their minds: How you can you win the popular vote but not the election? We talked through the Electoral College together, and having clarity about what had happened and why it happened seemed to give them a firmer foundation to build on as they processed their emotions. I am hopeful that teaching about flooding will help ground them in a similar way.

This lesson about flooding was once simply another lesson in the curriculum, but now it has taken on a new urgency. In moments of disaster, it is easy to feel powerless; I certainly could not help the people I saw posting on Facebook that they were been on hold with 911 for hours while standing on their roofs.

Yet teachers have a unique power — the power to shape the minds of future generations to solve the problems that we face. Houston’s location means that it will always be susceptible to flooding. But by teaching about the flood I hope I can play a small role in helping our city avoid repeating some of the tragic scenes I witnessed this week.

Alex McNaughton teaches history and geography at YES Prep Southeast in Houston.

Looking to help? YES Prep is collecting donations to support its students and their families. Houston ISD and KIPP Houston are also soliciting donations for their students.