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Rankings, Schmankings.

August 24, 2010

In my mind, late summer should be a time to share, prepare, and reflect. Share some barbecue and other treats you can only have when the weather’s nice enough for outdoor grilling; prepare for the new school year, and the coming fall and winter by preserving fruit; reflect on the insights that flourish when you have the time to slow down and really think.

For non-foodies and folks who don’t follow the school calendar, though, it seems to be all about rankings. College football fans are looking at preseason rankings, major league baseball fans are sizing up their teams’ postseason prospects, and the US News and World Report college rankings are out. And of course, district officials and other Data heads are buzzing about recently released test scores, and whose school or district is “better” than whose.

The adorable face of "low-growth." (For shame, LAT!)

Continuing their series about objectifying teachers and students by turning them into numbers value-added analyses of teacher and school performance, the Los Angeles Times published an article about high-growth vs. low-growth schools. This time around, Doug Smith and Jasons Song and Felch (henceforth: “JJ & D”) shared their discovery that many highly ranked and respected Los Angeles elementary schools actually rank near the bottom of the district when judged according to their students’ growth instead of their students’ absolute performance. Likewise, many schools considered low-performing rank at or near the top when growth is considered.

(Analyzing growth as well as absolute performance isn’t really news in Colorado. But, most of the people who go in for that stuff ’round the Rocky Mountains are too busy scratching their heads, and/or crying over our lost Race to the Top bid, to drop their two cents on the article right now.)

As in the last article, when a highly accomplished teacher suddenly discovered she wasn’t “highly effective” according to the analysis, this time we find that parents at some of L.A.’s most sought-after elementary schools are shocked to learn that student growth in their schools stays flat or even declines from year to year. One parent says she “would have definitely taken a really good look at other schools” had she known.

What she, and the rest of us, should really take a good look at is our obsession with ranking schools. Regardless of the methodology or the sorting criteria, arraying schools, teachers, or students on a distribution will never, ever fix our education system. It’s sad that such an obvious fact should need restating, but norms necessarily create failure. When you rank things, something will always be at the top, and something will always be at the bottom, regardless of the actual quality of the things being ranked.

In sports, rankings are fine (Go Yanks!). But when we’re talking about important things like education, rankings distract us from figuring out and doing whatever it is schools, teachers, and students need in order to improve. The Times’ value-added assessment campaign seems to be confusing people rather than enlightening them, like the parents and leaders in the high-API/low-VAA schools. I cringed when the principal at Wilbur Avenue reflected on the school’s growth scores and considered that they might be doing “too much” performance art. (Aside: I also cringed when he compared students to horses, “thoroughbred” or not, and shared some less-than-progressive thoughts on diversity.) What good is this information to him, if all it does is lead him to question some of the richest aspects of their curriculum? If parents are satisfied, and students are well-prepared for their futures, who cares about the rest of it?

It’s bad enough that low-income schools have been pushed into hysterics over standardized tests. Do we really want to see what will happen when status-conscious helicopter parents in higher-performing schools discover that their schools aren’t necessarily making their children “grow” as much as other schools? (Talk about a Race to Nowhere… Let’s make even more students test-averse and anxious at even younger ages, and further widen the achievement gap by encouraging schools whose students are already ahead to find new ways to boost performance. That development, combined with teachers’ most recent disincentive to collaborate and help each other improve, should really help put America’s public school system back on top. Way to go, JJ & D!)

If the staff at the Times were really interested in helping Los Angeles parents make more informed educational decisions, they would do a holistic evaluation of each school, and highlight which schools might be best for which kinds of students. Some schools will probably offer more arts, which will be great for budding performers; others might have more strength in the sciences, and would be a good fit for aspiring chemists or biologists or doctors. Some may have lower student-teacher ratios, or offer more special ed services, or whatever else, and that information would be far more useful to families than blunt rankings based on an opaque analysis of student performance on a battery of inadequate tests.

But they’re not trying to help families or the public, regardless of what they may say. They’re trying to sell papers and ad space, just like test-makers are trying to sell tests, and test-prep companies are trying to sell their services, etc. They’re perfectly happy to continue profiting off of our desire to chase a nonexistent ideal of “The Best.” Some companies make millions of dollars at our expense because we’re largely unaware of how most tests are designed to make small differences between test-takers appear large, or how test items are manipulated so that it’s impossible for “too many” people to get all or most questions correct. After all, what would happen if we really started to assess students holistically, restricted standardized testing to low-stakes measures of important foundational skills, and gave each student a fair shot at demonstrating their proficiency WITHOUT comparing them to one another or adjusting the content every year? Eventually, there wouldn’t be a significant percentage of “failures”— and they (along with all the other folks clucking and crowing about school failure) would be out of business. Ultimately, what matters is how well schools can meet their students’ needs as learners. If they’re doing that, we should applaud them. If they’re not, we should figure out why, and support them to change for the better. We don’t need stupid lists in order to do that.

ETA: Another argument for red-lighting all the comparisons and rankings kids experience these days: The Littlest Redshirts! Why should parents have to agonize over the decision of when to put their child in kindergarten? Shouldn’t people be able to trust that their children will be respected for who they are, whenever they arrive at school?

8 Comments leave one →
  1. August 24, 2010 8:54 pm

    I am curious to know what the JJ & D are really trying to do. I think it has to be more about selling papers and increasing readership to the LA Times than actually giving a critical analysis on the nature of education reform. I am not one of many who want to chalk there articles up to ignorance about the education system. They REALLY know what’s going on they are just “Covering the Eyes and Putting Their Fingers in their Ears, While Telling a Story.” — The title of my blog about the same thing. 🙂

  2. mariasallee permalink*
    August 25, 2010 9:42 pm

    I just wanted to add some additional well-deserved boos for Senator Johnston in Colorado, (who gained his knowledge of how schools work from his brief Teach for America experience) for foisting an unexplored, poorly researched law in a remarkably short period of time to beat the session deadline. This little gem, SB 191, will impose annual, statewide teacher and principal evaluation on our financially-stressed state, with no clear plan to pay for its implementation (without those coveted Race to the Top funds, that is). Bummer we didn’t get the money for that innovation…

  3. Yvonne Siu-Runyan permalink
    August 25, 2010 10:48 pm

    Just more fear and punishment. Some people love using fear and punishment. They don’t understand that using fear and punishment does not work in the long run, and that our young and this nation will continue to suffer.

  4. CarolineSF permalink
    August 26, 2010 2:37 pm

    MPal219, they’re trying to make sure they’re so high-profile that they’re not on the next layoff lists, and that they stick around until the teetering newspaper industry finally collapses. Then they will have to go look for other careers. One option is becoming a teacher. Another, pursued by other ex-reporters, is flacking for the bounteously funded charter school industry. Gosh, I wonder which they’d prefer…
    (Disclosure that I’m married to a displaced former newspaper reporter who’s now an urban public school teacher.)

  5. Monica permalink
    August 27, 2010 10:42 pm

    I just love your writing Sabrina…

    May I add that the children in these so-called “high API/Low VAA” schools are proficient in all ways that matter regarding standardized scores. Thanks to their privileged lives, they are in the realm of self-actualization and are engaged in learning for its own sake. Their STAR scores merely confirm that fact. Their “high API-Low VAA” schools are largely free of the standards/accountability juggernaut which has until now been ruthlessly applied to schools serving mostly low-income students. Their teachers have been in a position to treat the standardized tests as a mere inconvenience… something that briefly interrupts their rich curriculum for maybe a couple of weeks of test-prep and a couple of weeks of test-sitting. Then it’s back to projects, performance art, presentations, plays, and field trips. Has anyone explained to the parents at these schools that their children’s counterparts at “Low API-High VAA” are undoubtedly subjected to unrelenting skill-drill and test prep day in and day out to make the gains that are revealed in VAA? And what about the gap that still exists between the absolute scores? Won’t this VAA crap cloud that issue as well?

    What galls me most about this test-based “value-added” comparison between affluent schools and low-income schools is that it’s all about test scores as an end in themselves.

    CarolineSF’s comments are right-on. JJ & D are as self-serving as everyone else currently involved in these so-called education “reform” efforts. They care about keeping their jobs, which is fine for them, but apparently not for teachers.


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