Monday, June 10, 2013

When Do State Education "Rankings" Become Rank?

     When I competed in the NATO Swimming and Diving Competition in Sindelfingen, Germany in the early 1980's I wrote to my future bride about my amazing accomplishments. I was totally honest about my achievements… and totally misleading at the same time:  these characteristics also describe the nature of the constant battle between states over their "rankings" in education and student achievement.

     As a nation we seem to be fascinated with the practice of ranking almost everything! It seems that every local publication produces their rankings of food establishments or coffee houses or hamburgers, for example. Nationally we rank communities on crime, education, "friendliness" and honesty, pollution, "livability" and almost any other measure you can imagine! At the same time, however, it is abundantly clear that such measures often project a measure of precision that is patently absurd.
     For the record, in the 10 Meter Platform Diving event I achieved Third Place, and in the 1 Meter Diving Competition I received Fifth Place. The statements are a bit misleading, however. When asked to compete as part of the US Team in this competition I informed the coach that I really was NOT a good diver, by any measure! He quietly informed me that my ENTRY into the two diving categories would earn points for our team, and that he simply had no other divers. This leads to the misleading part of my accomplishment.  I didn't have to actually do ANYTHING other than dive!  Unless I was disqualified, I would win points for my team because there were only going to be two other contestants in the 10 Meter and 4 other in the 1 Meter classes. I would get points for the team without really doing anything, although diving from the 10 Meter Platform was more challenging that I could have imagined! In fact, I was almost embarrassed to surface after each dive. I placed dead last in both events, but I survived, and the US team won the overall competition.

     What does this story have to do with the very serious educational "competition" between states, and within states as well? In much the same way as I was able to win points for my team by simply taking part in the events, some states are able to win a high position in state "rankings" on the National Assessment of educational Progress (NAEP) by simply…being.  What do I mean by this?  One of the most clearly recognizable patterns we find in testing is that family income seems to account for a lot! States at the top of the rankings on NAEP tend to have more wealthy students, and fewer students qualifying for free meals.  Mississippi and Louisiana share the dubious honor of having the highest percentage of students in their public schools coming from low-income homes.  And both states "bring up the rear" when it comes to the NAEP rankings. Should anyone really be surprised by this relationship?

     Perhaps we should ask whether the respective rankings on NAEP actually represent a measure of the quality of teaching in the states or the quality of the school boards or some other school-related measure. Or perhaps we should ask whether the ranking simply corresponds to other measures of the quality of life such as, well, how about poverty! Louisiana and Mississippi are perennial "bottom feeders" on national measures of the quality of life of children when it comes to early childhood measures before these children ever enter the schoolhouse doors! Why is their no righteous anger when the annual "Kids Count" report is released by the Annie E. Casey Foundation and Louisiana is either in last or second to last place in those factors that we know impact our children's educational attainment and success in later life. As the 2011 report notes on page 24 "Children who are nurtured and well cared for in the first five years have better social-emotional, language, and learning outcomes." Does it take a degree in rocket science to see that how we care for children in their first five years is going to impact academic achievement for our schools?

     We need to keep in mind one thing, and it is very important in understanding another problem with the rankings between states on NAEP. The scores and rankings released annually and debated in the media and in the legislature are based on public schools only. Why is this important? Private and parochial schools are much less likely to admit students with severe physical, emotional, or mental handicapping conditions. They are much less likely to admit large numbers of students coming from the lowest income families. They are much more likely to use academic achievement tests in their admissions policies than they are to use "means testing."  For this reason, as more and more students in a given area are admitted to private and parochial schools, the more likely it is that the public schools in the same area are going to find themselves much lower in achievement-based rankings than other similar areas without private and parochial schools. This finding is true of states as well, of course.

     It is for this reason that the ranking of states in the Kids Count report is even more damning for Louisiana. It reports on factors for all children. Yet those children that arrive in our public schools throughout Louisiana face challenges at a significantly higher rate that the Kids Count report suggests, for the higher percentages of private and parochial schools in Louisiana are skimming off those students who are likely to have more resources than average, not less.

     I admitted the truth about my diving achievements (pun not intended, but valid) to my future wife in a letter just a few days after my initial letter. When are the media and the powerful political "reform" forces in our states going to "fess up" to the truth about the rankings in education? When are they going to recognize and admit the truth?

     The measures such as "Letter Grades" and "School Performance Scores" they are using to "damn" public education in Louisiana or particular school systems, are not legitimate rankings, but are instead a rank, odious and misleading set of measures that are being used to condemn our students, our teachers, and our communities. These same myths of "failure" based on these rankings are leading to a future of failed "status quo" reforms that are based on false premises, and less likely to improve education for all children than almost any measures recommended by groups like the Annie E. Casey Foundation in their 2011 Kids Count report:

A vast body of research shows that high-quality early childhood development programs for           disadvantaged children and their families are one of the most cost-effective investments for reducing the harmful effects of economic hardship. These programs include an array of home visiting and parenting support programs for families with infants and toddlers and comprehensive pre-kindergarten programs for three- and four-year-olds. (p.24)

     Don't expect to find "charter schools" or "value-added" measures in the Annie E. Casey report. They aren't there. What is there in the report is evidence-based findings of researchers drawing from data from around the country that how we measure student achievement, and rank the states, or districts around the country is not really a measure of teaching and learning in schools, but is instead a measure of who shows up at the public schools in each state. 

     Will you stand up and be counted as one who no longer allows the media and the "reformers" to damn your schools, and your state, in the interest of their politics and profit? Get informed! Get involved. Get real! And get ready, for the rank rankings will continue until we call them out for what they are! Dive in!


  1. These "Reformers" need to listen up ! But the truth sometimes hurts !

  2. Your diving example also illustrates the misconceptions that can be conveyed by coarsening of parametric to nonparametric statistics, or from interval or rational to ordinal data. If the winning diver scored 10 and you scored 8, then third place conveys some merit. If the winning diver scored 10 and you scored 2, then third place is misleading. This coarsening is very common in reporting educational statistics.