First Person

Comparing Small Apples to Large Apples

I’m not sure how much credibility the Progress Reports at the heart of the NYC Department of Education’s accountability system have left.  The elementary and middle school Reports issued earlier this fall were ridiculed for their inability to distinguish one school from another, since 97% of the school’s received A’s or B’s (and 84% received A’s).  Moreover, I showed that the student progress measures that make up 60% of a school’s overall score were highly unreliable from one year to the next.  As long as these reports are tied to year-to-year changes in state test scores, they’re likely to be fatally flawed.

On Monday, the Department released the 2008-09 Progress Reports for high schools.  Anna Phillips reported that Chancellor Joel Klein said that the high school Progress Reports were more stable and accurate than those for elementary and middle schools because they’re based on multiple measures.  Huh?  Welcome to the party, Chancellor Klein.  I hate to tell you that measures such as credit accumulation are not necessarily accurate measures of a school’s contribution to student learning and development. 

But the high school Progress Reports have a bigger problem.  Three-quarters of a school’s score comes from a school’s location in relation to a group of 40 peer schools.  The idea of comparing a school to peer schools is to create an “apples to apples” comparison.  It’s actually a good feature of the Progress Reports that they seek to compare a given school to how schools across the city are doing as well as to how schools that serve similar students are performing.

But it only works if the right criteria are used to determine a school’s peer schools.  Wednesday, Jenny Medina and Robert Gebeloff broke a story in the New York Times that high schools with higher percentages of poor, black and Hispanic students received lower grades on the Progress Reports.  In 2009, they wrote, the high schools which received A’s enrolled an average of 77% black and Hispanic students.  In contrast, the high schools which received C’s, D’s and F’s enrolled an average of 91% black and Hispanic students.  This pattern, found in 2007 and 2008 as well, suggested that the school grading system doesn’t adequately adjust for racial and ethnic differences among schools.

A high school’s peer index is based primarily on its students’ average eighth-grade scores on the state ELA and math exams (using the peculiar metric the DOE has developed for converting the exam’s scale scores into a 1.0 to 4.5 proficiency scale), minus two times the percentage of special education students and minus the percentage of overage students.  A high school with an average proficiency of 3.10, 6% special education students, and 12% overage students would have a peer index of 2.86.  One with an average proficiency of 3.70, 2% special education students, and 5% overage students would have a peer index of 3.61.

Although the formula tries to take special education and overage status into account, I suspect that its designers were unaware that it is dominated by the average proficiency value, because there is far more variance from school to school in average proficiency than in special education and overage status.  But a larger question is, why these factors and not others?  Why not the percentage of English Language Learners (ELL’s)?  Why not the percentage of students eligible for a free or reduced-price lunch?  Why not the racial/ethnic make-up of the school?  (And when is the DOE going to wise up that it can’t treat black students as equivalent to Hispanic students, and Asian students as equivalent to white students?  These groups have different learning trajectories.)

And why stop there?  If the goal is to try to isolate the impact of the school on student performance and progress, then logic would dictate that we should seek to control for all factors that are prior to selection into one school versus another, and potentially related to students’ outcomes.  That includes a range of demographic criteria, to be sure.  But there are at least two other factors that I think ought to be taken into account.  The first is school size.  Schools in New York City generally have little control over their size, and if small schools provide certain advantages for students, then we should compare small schools to small schools and large schools to large schools.  The second is per-pupil expenditures.  Even in the Fair Student Funding era, there are disparities in per-pupil expenditures across schools that are not accounted for by demographic differences in the students attending different schools.  I’ve spoken to principals who are indignant that their peer schools have higher expenditures, and yet they are being held to the same performance criteria.

Does all this matter?  You bet.  Let’s look at just one of the many measures in the high school Progress Reports:  the percentage of second-year students accumulating ten or more credits.  (The pattern I’m going to describe is found for many of the performance and progress measures in the Progress Reports.)   Citywide, the 2009 average was 72%, with a standard deviation of 15%.  Schools are compared to their “peer range,” a school’s location in relation to its lowest and highest peers.  Citywide, schools were, on average, 59% of the distance between the lowest and highest peers on their percentages of second-year students accumulating ten or more credits.

But some schools were advantaged in these calculations, and others disadvantaged, even though the peer horizon scores are explicitly designed to compare “apples to apples.”  The figure below compares schools in the lowest quarter of a given demographic feature to schools in the top quarter.  Schools with high concentrations of black and Hispanic students;  large schools;  schools with a higher proportion of special education students;  and schools with more English Language Learners all score lower relative to their “peer” schools than do other schools. 


What these figures suggest is that New York City’s high school Progress Reports systematically penalize some schools and reward others.  So when you see the DOE touting the superiority of the progress made by the small schools opened during the Bloomberg/Klein era, remember that it’s no accident:  it’s built into the accountability system.

First Person

I’m a teacher in Memphis, and I know ‘grading floors’ aren’t a cheat — they’re a key motivator

PHOTO: Creative Commons / Shelly

Growing up, my father used to tell me not to come to him with a problem unless I had a solution.

That meant I learned quickly what kinds of solutions wouldn’t go over well — like ones involving my father and his money. His policy also meant that I had to weigh pros and cons, thinking about what I was able to do, what I wasn’t, and whom I needed help from in order to make things happen.

I sometimes wish decision-makers in Memphis had a father like mine. Because more often than not, it seems we are talking about the problems void of a solution or even possible solutions to vet.

Right now, the issue in Memphis and Shelby County Schools is the “grading floor,” or the policy of setting a lowest possible grade a teacher can assign a student. They have been temporarily banned after a controversy over high-school grade changing.

Grading floors aren’t new to teachers in Memphis, or to me, a fifth-grade teacher. I have taught and still teach students who are at least two grade levels behind. This was true when I taught fourth grade and when I taught sixth grade. Honestly, as the grade level increased, so did the gaps I saw.

More often than not, these students have been failed by a school, teacher, leader or system that did not adequately prepare them for the next grade. Meanwhile, in my classroom, I have a responsibility to teach grade-level material — adjusting it for individual students — and to grade their work accordingly.

That’s where “grading floors” come in. Without a grading floor, all of my current students would have grades below a 65 percent.

Can you imagine seeing the face of a fifth-grade boy who tried his hardest on your test, who answered all the questions you gave orally, who made connections to the text through auditory comprehension, only to receive a 0 on his paper?

I don’t have to imagine – I see similar reactions multiple times a day. Whether it’s a 65 percent or a 14 percent, it’s still an F, which signals to them “failure.” The difference between the two was summed up by Superintendent Hopson, who stated, “With a zero, it’s impossible to pass a course. It creates kids who don’t have hope, disciplinary issues; that creates a really bad scenario.”

I know that as years go by and a student’s proficiency gap increases, confidence decreases, too. With a lowered confidence comes a lower level of self-efficacy — the belief that they can do what they need to do to succeed. This, to me, is the argument for the grading floor.

In completing research for my master’s degree, I studied the correlation between reading comprehension scores and the use of a motivational curriculum. There was, as might have guessed, an increase in reading scores for students who received this additional curriculum.

So every day, I speak life into my students, who see Fs far too often in their daily lives. It is not my job as their teacher to eradicate their confidence, stifle their effort, and diminish their confidence by giving them “true” Fs.

“This is not an indication of your hard work, son. Yet, the reality is, we have to work harder,” I tell students. “We have to grind in order to make up what we’ve missed and I’m the best coach you have this year.”

In education, there are no absolutes, so I don’t propose implementing grading floors across the board. But I do understand their potential — not to make students appear more skilled than they are, or to make schools appear to be better than they are, but to keep students motivated enough to stay on track, even when it’s difficult.

If it is implemented, a grade floor must be coupled with data and other reports that provide parents, teachers, and other stakeholders with information that accurately highlights where a student is, both within the district and nationally. Parents shouldn’t see their child’s progress through rose-colored glasses, or be slapped by reality when options for their child are limited during and after high school.

But without hope, effort and attainment are impossible. If we can’t give hope to our kids, what are we here for?

I don’t have all the answers, but in the spirit of my father, don’t come with a problem unless you have a solution.

Marlena Little is a fifth-grade teacher in Memphis. A version of this piece first appeared on Memphis K-12, a blog for parents and students.

call out

Our readers had a lot to say in 2017. Make your voice heard in 2018.

PHOTO: Chris Hill/Whitney Achievement School
Teacher Carl Schneider walks children home in 2015 as part of the after-school walking program at Whitney Achievement Elementary School in Memphis. This photograph went viral and inspired a First Person reflection from Schneider in 2017.

Last year, some of our most popular pieces came from readers who told their stories in a series that we call First Person.

For instance, Carl Schneider wrote about the 2015 viral photograph that showed him walking his students home from school in a low-income neighborhood of Memphis. His perspective on what got lost in the shuffle continues to draw thousands of readers.

First Person is also a platform to influence policy. Recent high school graduate Anisah Karim described the pressure she felt to apply to 100 colleges in the quest for millions of dollars in scholarships. Because of her piece, the school board in Memphis is reviewing the so-called “million-dollar scholar” culture at some high schools.

Do you have a story to tell or a point to make? In 2018, we want to give an even greater voice to students, parents, teachers, administrators, advocates and others who are trying to improve public education in Tennessee. We’re looking for essays of 500 to 750 words grounded in personal experience.

Whether your piece is finished or you just have an idea to discuss, drop a line to Community Editor Caroline Bauman at [email protected]

But first, check out these top First Person pieces from Tennesseans in 2017:

My high school told me to apply to 100 colleges — and I almost lost myself in the process

“A counselor never tried to determine what the absolute best school for me would be. I wasted a lot of time, money and resources trying to figure that out. And I almost lost myself in the process.” —Anisah Karim     

Why I’m not anxious about where my kids go to school — but do worry about the segregation that surrounds us

“In fact, it will be a good thing for my boys to learn alongside children who are different from them in many ways — that is one advantage they will have that I did not, attending parochial schools in a lily-white suburb.” —Mary Jo Cramb

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

“Apathy is often cited as a major problem facing education. That’s not the case in Tennessee.” —Grace Tatter

I went viral for walking my students home from school in Memphis. Here’s what got lost in the shuffle.

“When #blacklivesmatter is a controversial statement; when our black male students have a one in three chance of facing jail time; when kids in Memphis raised in the bottom fifth of the socioeconomic bracket have a 2.6 percent chance of climbing to the top fifth — our walking students home does not fix that, either.” —Carl Schneider

I think traditional public schools are the backbone of democracy. My child attends a charter school. Let’s talk.

“It was a complicated choice to make. The dialogue around school choice in Nashville, though, doesn’t often include much nuance — or many voices of parents like me.” —Aidan Hoyal

I grew up near Charlottesville and got a misleading education about Civil War history. Students deserve better.

“In my classroom discussions, the impetus for the Civil War was resigned to a debate over the balance of power between federal and state governments. Slavery was taught as a footnote to the cause of the war.” —Laura Faith Kebede