Tuesday, January 01, 2008

Be Wary of Distorted Factoids in “California’s Year of Education That Probably Won’t Be”

Schrag.gif by Peter Schrag | from the California Progress Report

December 5, 2007 - As California approaches the "year of education" that won't be, what education consultant John Mockler calls the "schools suck" industry continues to churn out information falling somewhere between distorted and flat wrong.

Although California's fiscal problems are likely to limit "reform" next year to a lot of low-cost stuff, it might still be nice to get the picture right.

The most recent flagrantly false factoid appeared in a news story late last month asserting that California's is a "system in which fewer than half of all ninth-graders end up with a high school diploma."

In 2002-3 there were 520,000 ninth-graders in California schools. In 2006, the most recent year for which data are available, 349,000 (67 percent) got diplomas. But since ninth-grade enrollment is famously bloated by the thousands of students who are held back, the better base is probably eighth grade. Using that number (for 2001-2) 75 percent got diplomas.

That's still not great – especially considering the many black and Latino students who don't make it – but a long way from "fewer than half." And if you count those who get general education diplomas outside the regular school system, the count is still higher.

The "fewer than half" is just a symbol of the larger misapprehension that test scores are flat or declining, that schools were better in some past golden age, that they're top-heavy with administrators and that despite spending tons of money, they rank on a par with Mississippi and Bangladesh.

Last spring, Mockler gave talks at conferences sponsored by EdSource, which compiles, analyzes and reports California school data. In them he summarized some basic numbers. The talk and much of his accompanying data can be found online.

Here are a few highlights:

• Students in the lowest 10th on the state's Academic Performance Index in 2006 would have been near the middle in 1999. In 2003, 35 percent of California students scored at the proficient or advanced level in reading; in 2007, 44 percent reached that level. Gains were considerably higher for Latino and black students. There were similar gains in math.

• Far more students are taking high school math and science courses. In 2007, 741,000 were taking algebra I compared with 491,000 in 2003. Similar increases were recorded in geometry, algebra II, chemistry and physics. There's no guarantee that those courses are as rigorous as their titles imply, or that they're all well taught. But the numbers are an indication.

All that was accomplished despite the fact that California spends $1,000 less per student than the national average, that it ranks last among the states in number of school employees per student, that it has just over half as many counselors as the average American school and that its student-teacher ratio is still among the highest in the nation.

On the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), sometimes called the "nation's report card," California scores lower than comparable states. But its data (as Mockler says) "are just silly" because each state chooses its own sample of students to be tested. Texas, which consistently ranks higher than California on NAEP, tests English learners only after they've been in school three years. We test them after one.

Despite some fiddles, moreover, California has stuck with its exemplary academic standards. That means that more of its schools will suffer penalties under the federal No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB) than the many states that watered down their standards or lowered the cut scores on their exams to make more of their students appear "proficient."

That's going to bite especially hard beginning this coming year, when California schools must show sharply increased progress toward the goal of 100 percent student proficiency in 2013-14. If proficiency is to mean anything, it's unreachable.

NCLB is already causing major problems for nearly 100 low-scoring California districts that have fallen into the federal "program improvement" category, which requires state fixes. But since some of those districts have strong programs and got the black spot only because a few students failed to take the required tests, they hardly need the kind of intervention that genuinely troubled schools require.

Unfortunately, the state hasn't yet provided the money to triage the needs and thus allow the cavalry to be sent where it's most urgently required. Ditto for funding the last steps to completing CALPADS, the California Longitudinal Pupil Achievement Data System that will enable California to track all students and thus get better information on school and classroom effectiveness and student progress.

For the better part of four years, nobody in the governor's office seemed to understand the complexities of the state's huge education system – which of course made it much harder to check the conventional "schools suck" wisdom.

The other day, the governor named Rae Belisle to a high post at the Department of Finance. Belisle, former executive director of the state Board of Education, knows the issues. The appointment is a hopeful sign.

Peter Schrag is the former editorial page editor of the Sacramento Bee.

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