We Need More Honesty from our School System about Student Achievement

This letter to the Editor was published in the Douglas County Sentinel on Sunday, Sept. 17th.

Dear Editor,
DCSS has a bad habit of issuing misleading reports to the public on student achievement. The reports are misleading mainly due to what they conceal. High graduation rates were announced without telling us test scores were lower than the state across the board and that dubious online courses were used to drive up rates; CCRPI increases that same year were touted without disclosing that the ‘increases’ were only due to major changes in the formula; district gains in SAT scores in 2016 were celebrated without revealing that they had declined in 3 of 5 high schools, and that, according to data we obtained through open records request, less than 3% of all graduates who took the SAT scored in the top 10 percentile (19 from DCHS; 2 from AHS; 1 from CHHS; and none at the others).
Recently, in the Sentinel, we learned of ACT score increases. It’s fine to report those, of course, but it must be put in proper perspective.  Conspicuously missing from the report was the fact that our 19.8 average is significantly below the 21.4 state average, and well below the minimum score of 26 students need to qualify for a full HOPE scholarship. By only reporting the increase and leaving out this context, DCSS conveys a positive impression to the public that is false. Likewise, the system conveyed in writing that DCSS ‘outperformed’ most districts in the metro area, when orally, in person, they merely claimed that more of our schools performed better than was expected of them. Most nearby district’s test scores are far better!
The school system needs to examine the intent and effect of such pronouncements. Who really benefits from the creation of such misperceptions? Surely not our children! A recent study by the parent group Learning Heroes found that nationally while only 1 of 3 8th graders are proficient in math and reading, 9 of 10 parents of 8th graders believe their kids are proficient.  If we are misled into thinking that our children are doing well academically, how can we hold the schools accountable? And how can we make sure our kids get the changes and support they need to get the kind of education that actually prepares them well for the future?
Jeremy Noonan
Douglasville

 

Tax Increases for Schools: The Cost of Excellence?

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Because property values are rising, school taxes will increase unless the BoE rolls back the millage rate. They are not planning on doing so. Public hearings are required prior to any tax increases. This is what I plan to say:

There are some citizens who would oppose any tax increase. To those citizens, I would say that excellence is costly. A truly excellent school system will cost more. If you want a top notch school system, you have to be willing to pay for it. 

Others, like myself may be open to tax increases, if they had confidence that it would indeed raise substantially the quality of our schools, that is if it were stewarded well in service of the public good. I exhort you to do the hard work of building that confidence. 

For there are reasons not to trust that additional taxes will be stewarded well: 

  1. The majority of our graduates are not prepared to succeed in a 4-year college. 
  2. Our high school students are under-performing their peers across nearly all academic exams. 
  3. Our Gifted students bring in millions more in QBE earnings than what is spent on their education. 
  4. Class sizes in high schools are larger than they should be. 
  5. You’ve spent money on programs like online credit recovery that have no real educational value added, beyond enriching private companies and inflating graduation rates. 
  6. You spent $860K more than was necessary on artificial turf fields to choose a vendor favored for whatever reason by district employees. 

It feels like the tax increases are a forgone conclusion, and that these hearings are merely perfunctory public gestures, held out of legal necessity. If you go ahead with these increases by not rolling back the millage rate, I urge you not to presume upon the good will of the public, upon those who would gladly pay more in taxes if it truly helped improve the quality of education for our children. Rather, do the hard work of showing the public that our money is being well spent. 

And finally a word to the district employees. The cost of excellence is much more than financial. These problems won’t be solved simply with more money. Truly holding student to high standards and empowering them to reach these goals is much more costly in terms of time, sweat, and tears than giving credits when students haven’t learned, than giving As when students are not even proficient in the curriculum, than enabling students to progress through the system simply by making it easier to do so. When you demand more of students, they demand more of you. If we are going to give you more money, we need to know that you are willing to pay these other costs of excellence as well. 

Are our Disadvantaged Students Really Learning? – an Analysis of the 2017 US News High School Rankings

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The latest US News & World Report High School Rankings (2017) indicate that disadvantaged populations of students are underperforming in Douglas County, and that high graduation rates have been achieved in large part by expedient means of moving such students through the system. This post will explain briefly the ranking’s methodology and then analyze some of the data to support this conclusion.

Only 1 of 5 high schools – Douglas County High – qualified for a ranking. To qualify for the lowest ranking – “Bronze” – schools must meet two criteria. First, their students as a whole must perform better on reading and math exams, administered by the state, than what is statistically expected based on the school’s poverty level (typically measured by the % of the student body on free and reduced lunch).  Second, the “disadvantaged” student groups (includes African-American, Hispanic, and poor students) must perform better than the state average for those populations.

To qualify for “Silver” or “Gold” ratings, there is an additional criteria: schools must exceed the median College Readiness Index (CRI). The CRI is comprised of both AP participation (how many students take an AP exam) and AP performance (how many students pass an AP exam). AP exams are used since these are college level exams through which students can earn college credit by passing.

To understand why 4 of 5 high schools did not qualify for a ranking, let’s look at Alexander High School as a case study (AHS consistently has the top CCRPI score in the district). In reading and math, Alexander students underperformed statistical expectations, having a gap score of negative 18 (a negative score means the actual performance was lower than expectations). Also, its disadvantaged populations scored 8.9 percentage points below the averages for disadvantage students throughout the state (only 12.7% of disadvantaged students were proficient in reading and math).

To understand why Douglas County High School earned a Bronze but not a Silver or Gold, let’s look at its statistics. Its gap score was positive 6.8, and its disadvantaged populations scored 6.5 percentage points above the state average. Thus, the first two criteria were met. Given the fact that its students with disabilities reading and math scores were on par or worse than the district as a whole, it is reasonable to assume that these test scores were boosted by the school’s population of International Baccalaureate students (at least 25% of test takers), which sees significant participation from African-American students.

DCHS did not qualify for Silver, though, because of low performance on AP exams. Even though the participation rate was fairly high (39%), the passing rate on all exams was only 17%, with 28% of seniors passing at least one exam (this is higher than 17% because it only requires one passed exam and excludes multiple failed exams). It is worth noting that in years past, DCHS ranked higher (recall the top 10% ranking?) because the rankings used IB exams instead of AP.

How does this relate to the high graduation rate spike in 2015? These latest rankings use 2015 academic data.  The fact that disadvantaged students are performing less than their peers while graduating at higher rates indicates clearly that the standards for graduation were lower. The high participation of disadvantaged students in the county’s suspect online credit recovery program, e2020, further supports this conclusion.

Revised Education Advocacy Goals

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CEPS has revised its education advocacy goals, making them more concrete and organizing them according to moral ideals that citizens should expect from their public school system (transparency, honesty, equity and opportunity, and fiduciary responsibility).  These are written in the form of things we would like the school system to do or things we would like to see happen in the system. We hope you will recognize the value of these to our community’s children and join us in advocating for them.

Transparency

  • All academic achievement data for high schools/magnets, especially AP and IB exams, posted on the Internet, including comparison with State and/or National or Global figures.
  • Communication with all middle school parents and current magnet school parents about where to find such data.
  • Keep and report data on post-graduation success over 5-year periods for each graduating class. .
  • Report to public test scores for online credit recovery students and students with disabilities. Show the achievement gains that are resulting in more of these students graduating.

Honesty

  • School administrators held accountable for bridging “honesty gaps” at the schools (honesty gaps are disparities between course grades and more objective indicators of student achievement like test scores)
  • Teachers reprimanded for grade inflating practices whereby course grades are increased without any connection to real gains in achievement.

 

Equity and Opportunity

  • Placement of only academically qualified students (i.e. demonstrated readiness for college level coursework) in AP and IB classes. A 1 and 10 chance of getting college credit from AP courses is NOT opportunity. Misplacing students academically is inequitable.
  • Assignment of certified teachers to oversee any credit recovery courses, online or otherwise. This doesn’t mean certified PE teachers! It means teachers that certified in the subject areas of the courses they are supervising.
  • Compliance with all other NCAA requirements for non-traditional courses in online credit recovery programs.

     

Fiduciary Responsibility

  • Transparency on the use of all funds received for Gifted students and students with disabilities to ensure that they are benefiting them directly.

     

Stopping for the School Bus: A Cautionary Tale

passing a school bus

In February, a member of the Douglas County Board of Education received a ticket for illegally passing a school bus, which was stopped, lights flashing, to either drop off or pick up children (Douglas County Sentinel, March 19th 2017). The BoE member, through his lawyer, expressed regret, saying that the misdemeanor crime was committed “inadvertently.” Given that the road on which this happened has four lanes with a turn lane, I think he deserves the benefit of the doubt; I can see this happening to the best of us. But this incident is pregnant with deeper meaning. I hope our school system’s leaders will recognize the symbolic significance of this event and learn from it.

Why is passing a stopped school bus not only illegal but wrong? Negligent drivers risk the well-being of students coming off a bus in their haste to reach a particular destination. We recognize instinctively that the few seconds that the driver saves on his commute time are not even comparable to the risk of putting children’s safety in danger. When a driver does this, we are rightly aghast that he would judge this risk to be worth a few seconds of his time. The crime is especially galling when committed by someone whose public duty is to ensure that our children’s well-being is the top priority of the school system.

Knowing why this behavior is wrong allows us to see in it a poignant analogy for other wrongs in the school system.  On its way to reach such worthy destinations as high graduation rates and increased participation in AP courses, the school system has risked the well-being of our children by pursuing them in a hasty, careless manner. Serious long-term risks to our children’s futures have been taken for the sake of short-term benefits to the adult drivers.

These goals have been achieved by expedient methods such as as cheating in online credit recovery courses and aggressively recruiting students who are not yet proficient in high school level work into what are supposed to be college-level courses (AP). The result of this careless haste is to weaken the integrity and thus value of a high school diploma, and to impede achievement in AP courses by lowering academic standards to accommodate unprepared students. Consequently, many graduates are ill-prepared to succeed in college or lack the job skills needed for a productive career.

I don’t believe that the BoE member in this case consciously thought, “I don’t care about these children; I just want to get to where I am going as fast as possible.” This wasn’t an act of malice; it was an act of neglect. Similarly, our school system’s leaders are not callous towards children’s well-being, but there has been negligence in considering carefully the long-term consequences of their means and methods. The ends of high graduation rates and high participation on AP courses do not justify the means of attaining them.

Our school system needs to slow down and pay more attention to how the shortcuts they have taken to reach these goals are putting our children’s futures at risk. 

Profiles in Excellence: Mahdi Al-Husseini, Class of 2013, DCHS

tedx

Perhaps the best indicator of a quality education is the success a school’s graduates experience at the next level. TedXDouglasville founder and leader, Mahdi Al-Husseini, graduated with an IB Diploma from Douglas County High School and is currently in his final year at Georgia Tech, pursing a Bachelor’s degree in Bio-Medical Engineering. After graduating, he will be commissioned as a 2nd Lieutenant in the US Army where he plans to be an aeromedical evacuations helicopter pilot flying a Sikorsky Black Hawk. This role entails being responsible for expediently evacuating battlefield casualties to nearby combat support hospitals.

I had the privilege of teaching Mahdi for two years in IB’s critical thinking course, Theory of Knowledge. We have maintained our friendship, and it has been a joy to see him flourish in his college years. I asked him some questions about his success at Georgia Tech and his experience in bringing a TedX conference to his hometown.

Tell me about your success at GT. What are some achievements you are proud of?

Though fortunate to be on the receiving end of many excellent opportunities internships and awards, my greatest success at Georgia Tech has been learning to love engineering. I entered Georgia Tech with the intention to complete a degree in engineering, and then move into either medicine or policy. How things have changed! The thrill of problem solving drew me in, and I have not looked back since.

Looking back, which aspects of your DCSS education were most valuable in preparing you to succeed in college?

Writing and critical thinking. This may come as a surprise, given that I attend an engineering school. However, the technical nature of the biomedical curriculum means that most of your peers can solve equations and draw diagrams – but not many can write. Additionally, engineering is essentially problem solving, and problem solving requires critical thinking.

How and why did you start TEDxDouglasville? How has this helped you grow?

I began TEDxDouglasville to give back to the community that raised me. As licensed organizer, I oversee the development and direction of fellow young people tackling specialized roles including executive production, graphic design, and sponsorship management.  More than a million YouTube views after our first event in 2015, TEDxDouglasville has engaged thirty-two high school and collegiate volunteers with their community, inspired and contributed towards the development of the Douglas Youth Department (DYD) and Progressive Action towards the Health of Douglasville (PATH), partnered with industry giants Google and Walmart, and has selected an additional twelve speakers to present to audience members in 2016 and 2017. With each new event, our team rediscovers the fulfillment of public service, and sets precedent for even younger members to make tangible community changes.

My success with TEDxDouglasville has been helping youth shape their community. In turn, my engagement has assisted me in developing excellent leadership qualities, and interpersonal, oral, and written communication skills to reach even higher goals.

Thank you to Mahdi and the TedXDouglasville team, which mostly consists of DCSS alumni, for affording our community excellent opportunities for lifelong learning through this program. Your work among us will be missed!

Read previous “Profiles in Excellence” archived here. 

Dishonesty in the School System: a Commentary on Chester Finn’s “The Fog of “College Readiness”” – part 5

studentAfter a hiatus of a few weeks, we are resuming this series that looks at the systemic dishonesty in the public school system concerning students’ readiness for college level work.

While most high-school graduates do, in fact, head for some sort of college, the colleges do not view millions of these matriculants as qualified for credit-bearing courses in core subjects such as English, math, and science. These students are admitted because the majority of U.S. two- and four-year colleges are open-admission institutions that, whether because it’s their statutory mandate, their sense of mission, or their financial imperative, accept pretty much all who apply. And thanks to widespread availability of financial aid — federal grants and especially loans being by far the largest source — and costs that are still relatively manageable on most campuses due to state subsidies, local taxpayers, and generous donors, few students are deterred by net-price considerations. (Price certainly affects which colleges they choose, however, and whether they enroll full or part time.)

Enrolling in an affordable college is not, however, the same as registering for college-level courses, the kind that actually accumulate credits toward those remunerative degrees. Instead, vast numbers of arriving students are routed into remedial classes — more often now called “developmental” — to gain the skills and knowledge (and perhaps the study habits) that they didn’t bring from high school. – Chester Finn, Jr.

Most high school graduates end up in some kind of college. Of the 1,762 graduates in the 2015 class (the year the graduation rate inexplicably skyrocketed) , 35% went to a public college in GA, 11% went to college out of state, 9% went to a technical college in GA, and 3% went to a private college in GA, the year after graduation. Interestingly enough, this college enrollment rate of 58% for Douglas County is lower than the state rate of 64%, in spite of a much higher graduation rate.

Since getting into college of some kind is relatively easy, the more important question is how do they do when they get there? A significant portion of the college enrollees from this class needed to take a remedial math course (24%) or a remedial reading course (10%). This means the students, or taxpayers, had to pay for courses that did not result in actual college credits, i.e. credits that counted toward an actual degree.

How can this be when students passed, and probably made As or Bs in,  literature and math courses in high school that cover the same content and skills as these remedial courses? I think the answer is obvious: the grades they received in high school had little to do with the knowledge and skills they actually attained. Their high school teachers did not require students to demonstrate mastery in order to pass the course, or even get good grades, and thus get credit. Such an outcome is all too frequent in our high schools, even though the GA DoE’s position is that students who earn credit can a course should be proficient in the curriculum.

Why isn’t this problem recognized and named to be the fraud that it is? Perhaps if local school districts were forced to pay for these remedial college courses, they would do a much better job ensuring that students had to acquire real knowledge and skills to earn credits for graduation.

This is part 5 of a running commentary on Chester Finn’s “The Fog of “College Readiness”” (National Affairs, Issue Number 30, Winter 2017). 

*Post graduation data from “High School Graduate Outcomes Report”, https://hsgrad.gosa.ga.gov/

A Parable of Faux Success

drivers ed

A company, sanctioned by the DMV, sets up shop in Douglas County to provide Driver’s Education for our teenagers.In 2016, they had their best year ever, providing training to 3300 would-be drivers. Although only 13 failed to complete the course, 1682 felt unprepared to even take the DMV driver test.  About half, 1618 optimistically took their driver’s test and yet only 376 passed, receiving their driver’s license.  Although the other 2924 students are still not able to drive, they were ensured that future driving schools they might attend would be impressed that they finished this rigorous course. Ironically, the DMV celebrated the company’s achievement of serving over 3000 students last year and the company has announced plans to expand, due to increased demand and popularity.

This metaphor was used by a CEPS volunteer speaking at the March BoE meeting about the state of our district’s AP program. He went on to say:

Sadly, this metaphor reflects our current AP program, where enrollment is celebrated while an 89% non-achievement rate seems to go unaddressed.  We’ve done a great job at increasing enrollment steadily since 2011, yet college credit achievement remains very, very low.

Yet Douglas County Schools continues to showcase its AP accolades. Again, this year all five high schools were named “AP Honor Schools” by the GA DoE, based solely on their course offerings, while all five schools had a mode exam score of 1.

How are our Students with Disabilities Really Doing Academically?

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The astounding district graduation rate increase of 13% from 2014 (75%) to 2015 (88%) was attributed in part to gains in the graduation rate of students with disabilities (SWDs). The SWD graduation rate in Douglas County doubled from 35% in 2014 to 70% in 2015 (compared to an increase from 36 to 54% in Georgia over the same time period)*. How was this dramatic increase attained? Was it a result of significant increases in the academic achievement of these special needs students? Does Douglas County have a higher SWD graduation rate because its students are learning more?

A comparison on End of Course exam proficiency data between SWDs in Douglas County and the state of Georgia provides some clues^:

In 7 of 8 subject areas, Douglas County’s SWDs achieved less than their peers throughout the state, indicating lower standards and expectations for this population.

One might counter in the one exam seniors take, Economics,  DC students did better. This is true and it may account partly for why the SWD graduation rate was better than the state’s. However, in 2016 the graduation rate was still much higher (65 compared to 56%), yet DC students did worse on all 8 exams that year, including Economics. And the 2016 graduates would have taken the American Literature and US History exams as juniors in 2015. With a proficiency rate of 15%, the American Literature scores certainly raise questions about the quality of the education these students are receiving.

So how can the graduation rate of this population be so high while academic achievement is so low? The likely answer that very little learning is required of students to earn credits and thus progress through the system and graduate. I saw this firsthand last year when I taught high school classes that included students with disabilities. Quite frankly, these students had been conditioned by years of low expectations. For example, all of them were allowed “test corrections for points.” This means that after taking a multiple choice test, they were shown which ones they got wrong and allowed to change their answers and get their tests re-graded. It was not uncommon for test grades to rise from Fs to Bs or As as a result. I found this problematic because in most cases I knew that the students were not really learning at this level. Rather, this practice allowed them to increase their grade mostly by guessing. In addition, they commonly received and so expected “study guides” that gave them the test questions and answered ahead of time.

Having grown accustomed to such crutches, most did not know how to really prepare for tests because they didn’t have to. And since such practices were not allowed on their final, standardized exams (because that would invalidate the results!), most could not succeed on them.

Such low expectations indicate a low view of these students capabilities and even value as persons. An experience I had in a teacher planning meeting illustrates this vividly. We were trying to set academic achievement goals for our students for the year. The previous year, the SWD passing rate on a particular science exam was only 7%. We had to set a target for increasing it. The faculty decided on an increase to 8%. Yet, as I objected, since there were only about 40 SWDs enrolled in the course this year, an increase of one percentage point did not even represent one more whole student passing the course! (7% to 8% of 40 is an increase of 2.8 to 3.2, or 0.4 students). In other words, only 1 more student had passed the exam, the passing rate would have increased by more than 1 percentage point.

This raises an essential question about the primary goal of special education: should standards be lowered for them in order to make it easier for them to progress through the system? Or should they be expected to really learn and given effective supports to overcome their disability to do so?

*All data obtained from the Governor’s Office of Student Achievement – https://gosa.georgia.gov/downloadable-data.
^Proficiency rates here are weighted averages using different multipliers for different levels of performance on exams.

Dishonesty in the School System: a Commentary on Chester Finn’s “The Fog of “College Readiness”” – part 4

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Yet our K-12 education system has never gotten more than one-third of young Americans to the “college-ready” level by the end of the 12th grade. Twenty percent drop out before finishing high school, and of the rest only about two in five graduate with the reading and math skills that equip them to take credit-bearing college courses. – Chester Finn

High school graduates in Georgia receive a diploma that is earned, ostensibly, by completing successful a college preparatory curriculum. While students can complete various “career pathways” as electives to pick up some job skills, there is no alternative diploma. The official goal is to make sure everyone is ready for college.

Our public schools are far from reaching that goal. Let’s track Georgia graduates from the class of 2011. I chose 2011 because we now have five years of post-graduation data for this class, and five year college graduation rate is used as a key indicator of success. In 2011, 68% of Georgia graduates enrolled in some kind of post-secondary institution the year after graduation (included 4 year colleges, 2 year colleges, trade schools). Of these, 16% needed remediation in Reading, and 25% needed remediation in Math. By 2016, only 25% of the 2011 graduating class had earned a post-secondary credential (includes Bachelor’s or Associate’s degrees, or some kind of certificate).*

Would we accept a 1 and 4 success rate in any other public institution? 

How do Douglas County graduates fair? If you have been following CEPS for awhile, you would probably guess worse and be right. The 2011 class saw 63% enroll in college the next school year. The remediation rate for reading was 17%; for math 30%. By 2016, just 20% had completed successfully some kind of post-secondary program: a 1 and 5 success rate for a system whose main focus is supposed to be preparing students for college success. 

Evidence of fraud lies in the fact that parents and students anticipate a much different result from their education.  More from Mr. Finn:

That might be acceptable if only a third of young Americans aspired to college and there were ample decent jobs for those who did not. But surveys consistently show that the overwhelming majority of U.S. kids plan to go to college (though not necessarily four-year college). Their parents expect this, too, and both children and parents believe that students are on track to gain entry to and to succeed in college. While many families worry about the cost of college, a 2016 survey by Learning Heroes found that 90% of parents with children in grades K-8 were fairly certain that their kids are at or above grade level in math and reading and are on track academically to succeed in the next school grade. Sixty-two percent worry little, not much, or not at all that their offspring will be well prepared for higher education — and just 19% “worry a lot” about this. (Given a list of worries, parents ranked college readiness ninth, far behind emotional health, peer pressure, and the like.)

The kids are confident, too. Purposeful efforts to boost their positive feelings about themselves were all the rage in education circles a quarter-century ago — despite evidence of an inverse relationship between self-esteem and actual achievement — and those efforts seem to have had the intended effect. According to a 2014 Northeastern University survey, more than 80% of U.S. teens believe that a college degree is important to advancing their career goals, and they think it’s important to pursue the career of their choice. Some 87% want eventually to earn such a degree, reports a 2015 YouthTruth poll. According to a 2016 report of a three-year survey of 58,000 new community-college entrants, 76% agreed or strongly agreed with the statement, “I feel that I am on track to reach my academic goals at this college within my expected timeframe.”

Most of my science students last year blithely supposed that they were headed to college after graduation (these were regular-level classes that nonetheless are still supposed to be “college prep”) . They had been fed this vision their entire childhood. Yet I knew that most of them did not have the knowledge, self-management skills, or work ethics to succeed in college, and the statistics tell me that even if they start college (many public institutions have no admission standards), they will not finish. The problem with this delusion is that they are not preparing themselves for alternatives: if they never get a college degree, how will they be “productive citizens”? What will these children do in adulthood?

What are the 80% of the 2011 class that have not yet gotten any kind of college credential doing now?  It is definitely not what their parents expected five years ago! 

This is part 4 of a running commentary on Chester Finn’s “The Fog of “College Readiness”” (National Affairs, Issue Number 30, Winter 2017). 

*Post graduation data from “High School Graduate Outcomes Report”, https://hsgrad.gosa.ga.gov/