The Rigged Scoring on School Testing

Little Rock       If the process of test scoring isn’t a national issue yet, it’s going to be.  Fire fights have erupted in community after community at all levels, because there is no consensus on either the tests or what they measure.   New York City is being hammered for testing that has increased segregation in its schools, maintaining what an ACORN report labeled years ago as “secret apartheid.”  The College Board group that runs SATs that most colleges and universities use to evaluate applicants retreated from an “adversity” measure after withering parental complaints about assigning a number to neighborhood, environment, and other conditions as part of the score.  Locally, testing under the largely discredited No Child Left Behind regime and now the 2015 Every Student Succeeds Act has been used to justify school takeovers by states to usher in privatization and charters in New Orleans and Little Rock with the fight be waged in earnest now in Houston as well.

To the degree that the test scores have become the “be all and end all” for school districts and the students, are they really the objective measures that many might presume them to be?  Evidence from Louisiana indicates that fingers are pressed on the scale at every turn.  I need to quickly add that I’m not talking about the systemic corruption that the testing paradigm has introduced into the educational system.  The testing not only perverts the education of students but also encourages competition on that basis between schools within a district and districts with each other and makes or breaks careers of principals and administrators encouraging cheating.  School after school in New Orleans and Louisiana have had to change management, fire or force resignations for test cheating scandals by adults, not students.

I’m talking about the way the scoring itself has been manipulated to protect jobs above, rather than education for students below.  As reported in the New Orleans Advocate / Times-Picayune on the current lack of progress in the New Orleans charterized system:

By 2025, as part of Louisiana’s overall plan, the state will designate an A-rated school as one in which students are proficient in literacy and math skills. That will be shown when they get a mastery or advanced — rather than basic — score on state assessments. The other levels, in descending order, are approaching basic and unsatisfactory.

As the state rolls out these growth metrics each year, officials will try to assess whether students are on track to get a score of mastery by eighth grade, if the student is in elementary or middle school, and by 10th grade if the student is in high school.

Each student is then given a target score each year to try and achieve. If they meet their target — which can be a small increase in points — they will get an A for growth.

If they don’t meet their target, they can still earn points for scoring higher than their peers. They are compared based on historical LEAP performance, economically disadvantaged status, English-learner status, disability type, discipline and attendance, according to state officials.

For students who are already very high-performing, the label can mean simply that they maintained high scores, even if they didn’t actually show growth.

The growth metric will make up 25% of an elementary or middle school’s overall performance score and 12.5% of a high school’s overall score.

Let this sink in.  One quarter to one-eight of the test results for a student will not be on educational achievement whatsoever but on what most favorably would be call subjective standards, which might be positive or negative for the student, but would likely be in the self-interest of the school and its administrators in padding the numbers for their own sake.  Furthermore, progress will be measured not against an objective standard, but relative to year-to-year “improvement.”

This doesn’t even count the way the local district and the state fudge the overall numbers by taking the charter away from operators that are low performing or caught in scandals which effectively erases their low scores and the impact on the overall district’s number.  The new operator is also given a grace period on scores for a couple of years so they don’t count either, and might end up with them bounced out, too.  Theoretically, it might be possible for a student to be trapped in a low-performing, failing charter school, and never have their scores impact the overall if this merry-go-round of miseducation and unaccountability were cycled throughout a child’s entire time in elementary or middle school.

Measurements are important for accountability, but in education, just like everything else, they have to be fair and objective, and in this case, in the students’ interest, or they are worse than wrong, they are criminal and life-damaging.

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Bond Issues Along Protests on School Takeovers, Privatization, and Charter Expansion

New Orleans  Throughout the country parents, teacher unions, and community groups have been opposing the viral spread of privatization of public school systems and the efforts of charter school operators to expand their footprint in school districts. Perhaps the most controversial maneuvers are the state takeovers of local public school districts by removing duly elected school board members and replacing them with unaccountable managers.

The most famous was certainly the post-Katrina usurpation in New Orleans which has now led to all but four of the more than 100 schools in the district being run by charter operators. School districts have also been taken over in Indianapolis, threatened in Buffalo, in some California districts, and others as well. Despite only a small number of poorly performing schools of the forty-eight in the Little Rock School District, the state of Arkansas asserted control seemingly triggered by outside donors and advocates of charter expansion being opposed by the Superintendent, who was immediately replaced.

These fights have sharp dividing lines, but increasingly the claims of private and charter operators of improved education and test scores has not been proven by the actual results. Advocates of vouchers to accelerate the process of moving students out of public schools have also made progress in more than half of the states in the country and now have a staunch advocate as head of the Department of Education, but recent studies are indicating that students are falling behind in many of these private and parochial facilities. Claims from New Orleans and New York that such programs would decrease racial and ethnic segregation in public school systems are also achieving the opposite outcomes.

In the tug of war over school control, which is often cultural and ideological, the voice of protests have often been simply ignored by state governments and others. Events in the ongoing fight in Little Rock may have found a way to force authorities to hear their opposition using the ballot box to express their anger when presented with a school bond issue. A wide coalition of groups, including Local 100 and Arkansas Community Organizations, the former Arkansas ACORN, opposing the bond issue for new school construction and other programs in the district united under the banner of “Taxation without Representation,” made their protest of the state takeover clear.

Despite a united business community and being outspent by a ratio of ten to one, opponents smashed the bond issue by a margin of almost 2 to 1, 65% to 35%. The district is 70% African-American now and in many African-American precincts the margins against the bond issue ran 90% to 10%. Normally liberal districts in middle-income, hipper Heights area also defeated the bond issue strongly. The turnout was the highest for a bond issue in 17 years. The Governor Asa Hutchinson, whose administration was responsible for the takeover, campaigned for the measure and was embarrassed by the results. The state appointed Superintendent was forced to concede the loss even before balloting ended.

Bond mileage increases on property taxes funding school districts are usually the lifeblood of public schools. Often the district needs the money as much as the taxpayers do in these tough financial times, but even if this is playing with fire, there is no denying the power of the protest when a community unites to oppose privatization, charter expansion, and undemocratic takeovers of local districts. Little Rock protesters and voters may have shown others around the country the path to take to force their voices to be heeded.

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