Thursday, September 30, 2010

Semantic Dissonance

I'm pretty sure that Jefferson County State Representative Darryl Owens and Education Commissioner Terry Holliday want the same thing. But you wouldn't know it from the crossed communications that took place over the past week.

As KSN&C readers are aware, Holliday took some time recently to bemoan the woeful Adequate Yearly Progress (AYP) measures mandated by No Child Left Behind.

When the Courier-Journal asked Holliday about the rising standards of No Child Left Behind last week, Holliday indicated that overall Kentucky schools aren't progressing fast enough to meet the elevating goals. Then, Holliday stated:

Many schools are falling short because they can't meet the testing standards among their minority, low-income, learning-disabled or limited-English students. If even one group should fail to meet the reading or math goals, then the school is judged to be failing, which Holliday says “isn't fair.

By 2014, there will be no school in America that will make adequate yearly progress if they have any sort of diversity in their building.

But that last sentence stuck in Rep Owens' craw and he reacted with a letter which ran in Tuesday's Courier-Journal,

Owens said Holliday's statement undermined the spirit of KERA and NCLB. He concluded,
It is clear from that statement that Holliday believes that persons of color, low-income students, learning-disabled students or limited-English-speaking students cannot learn and learn to high levels.
Owens might have preferred Holliday's statement to include all subgroups of students, so as to eliminate any inference that poor performance in the schools is limited to those listed subgroups only. Or perhaps instead of saying diverse schools "can't meet the testing standards," Owens may have preferred him to say they are not presently meeting the testing standard. I suspect this dust up is more about how something was said, rather than anything deeper.

What Owens may not appreciate is that NCLB's deck is stacked against our most diverse schools. For reasons owing to NCLB, and not necessarily the students’ abilities, over the next four years more schools in Owens’ district will be labeled as failures by NCLB - even those making significant strides. The Commissioner would like to recognize growth.

It seems to me that pushing for a trustworthy and fair way to gauge school success was clearly on Holliday's mind. That's hard enough to do with NCLB's current design. But add to that Kentucky's backloaded targets which will continue spiking skyward over the next four years, and Holliday already knows that he is very likely to watch more and more Kentucky schools fail to meet AYP, unless Congress revamps NCLB.

Holliday is correct to say that NCLB testing is not fair to schools. And as he implied, it is most unfair to the most diverse schools.

Under NCLB, the failure of only one subgroup is sufficient to tag the entire school as unsuccessful. Those most likely to fail are those schools with the most identifiable subgroups. By definition, the more subgroups a school has, the more diverse the school population is.

As C-J's Toni Konz also points out in the article, NCLB's judgment fell on the mighty as well.
[S]everal of the district's magnet schools with reputations for academic excellence saw fewer students reach proficiency in many subject areas, including Brandeis, Greathouse/Shryock and Audubon elementaries and duPont Manual High School and the Brown School.
It is very difficult for any school, even the most advantaged, to increase student achievement 8 to 10 percent a year. But that's the game right now.

Owens followed his letter to C-J with one to Holliday: copied to Governor Beshear, Education Chairs Winters and Rollins and state board Chair David Karem.

Holliday responded to Owens and invited him to sit and chat about things. Owens has agreed but (at the time of our interview) a date has not been set.

In his letter, Holliday expanded his explanation, even providing Owens with a data tid bit I had not heard before: The correlation between the number of goals a school has and meeting AYP is ~.995. That's about as close to statistical certainty as one can expect to get.

Holliday's data show those relationships break down like this:
  • A school with 7 or fewer goals -- achieved AYP 88% of the time.
  • A school with 8 - 11 goals -- achieved AYP 68% of the time.
  • A school with 12 - 15 goals -- achieved AYP 42% of the time.
  • A school with 16 or more goals -- achieved AYP 13% of the time.
Talking to KSN&C Thursday, Owens said he found Holliday's comment in the paper "disturbing" and said it presupposes that people of color were incapable. Owens said he had received some supportive comments from folks in his district, which covers downtown Louisville and contains the richest and poorest parts of the city.

When asked about the way NCLB testing goals were applied to the schools, Owens, an attorney, said that he was not an educator and wasn't prepared to discuss that, but he was expecting testing improvements to be made in the schools. He said the "performance might not meet those standards" in some schools but it would have been helpful if Holliday had said he was committed to "make an effort to bring them up to meet those goals."

"If he didn't convey what he intended to say it is his obligation to make clear what he meant," Owens said.

In his "Fast Five on Friday" email to state superintendents Commissioner Holliday referred to his recent blog post (linked above) and included his response to Owens' letter which he sent to the Courier-Journal.
In response to Rep. Darryl Owens’ concerns about my recent comments that appeared in a September 23rd Courier-Journal article, I am afraid that he has misinterpreted my intent, and I appreciate the opportunity to clarify the meaning of my comments. My comments were focused on the No Child Left Behind law and the problematic federal accountability system with its measure called Adequate Yearly Progress (AYP).

The goals of No Child Left Behind are the same goals that we have in Kentucky – every child proficient and every child prepared for success. However, the measure called AYP is not a valid, reliable or fair measure of progress in schools and districts. The AYP measure has led to many unintended negative consequences in Kentucky and across the nation. It penalizes those schools with diversity by not recognizing the improvement these schools have made.

Teachers and principals will agree with me that we have focused too much on basic skills testing to the detriment of problem solving and critical thinking. We have focused too much on remediation of skills in math and reading to the detriment of a full, well-rounded curriculum that includes art, music, health, physical activity, social studies and science. We have pulled students from engaging courses like music and art to provide skills training. We have labeled teachers, schools and districts as failures when they have reached 90% of goals or more. We have demoralized teachers and principals by calling them failures.

The Kentucky Board of Education is moving forward with development of better measures of raising achievement and closing achievement gaps. The board will review a revised accountability model at its October meeting. This model is based on requirements of 2009’s Senate Bill 1, which was unanimously passed by the General Assembly. This new model includes measures and support for exactly what Rep. Owens is promoting – a belief that ALL children can learn and ALL children can succeed in college and/or career.

I appreciate that Rep. Owens raised this concern so that I could provide this clarification.

1 comment:

David Watkins said...

It seems to me that measuring standards of education based on a certain kind of student seems to be bias or even racist. It mentioned that the more "diverse" schools were not doing well enough to meet the standards. When I hear the word "diverse" it seems to have meant ethnically. Which also seems to say that an all white school may do better than an ethnically diverse school. I believe it would be better if we did away with the different groups and subgroups, in terms of measuring standards of education.