School rankings: One size doesn't fit all | Arkansas Blog

Tuesday, January 3, 2012

School rankings: One size doesn't fit all

Posted By on Tue, Jan 3, 2012 at 9:29 AM

The Arkansas Democrat-Gazette devoted a significant amount of real estate in the Sunday newspaper to some number crunching by the Walton-financed school reformers up at the University of Arkansas.

Over two pages, every school in Arkansas was reduced to a single number, an average percentile score on a national standardized test, the Iowa test. The ranking showed that scores vary widely by school, even within districts. This wasn't exactly a surprise. School districts are not filled with fungible students, all created and distributed equally.

To me, the most significant part of the reporting was contained in a smallish sidebar on the third page of the three pages devoted to the numbers. In it, one of the UA faculty was quoted in the third paragraph as saying something that sharply devalued everything that had gone before. The ranking in the two-page chart, Gary Ritter said, was "darn close" to a ranking of students by their families' income. It was another duh moment, but nonetheless welcome that it was noted in the statewide paper.

You can get to a fuller recapitulation of the test data, plus minority enrollment and the poverty index for each school at this link. The UA researchers have further crunched the numbers to show where schools perform better than expected based on family income, but I don't yet have a link to that analysis. It is a comparison that could cause some discomfort, or at least alter perception a bit. Follow along if you will:

Just to do a little cherry picking:

* HELENA-WEST HELENA: The KIPP Academies, widely lauded and richly endowed charter schools, are said to be working miracles in the Delta. They are aided by motivated parents and willingly enrolled students who sign up for longer days and school years and agree to a number of tough rules, else they are sent back to less fortunate circumstances. In this listing, KIPP's K-2 and 5-8 schools scored at the 48th and 42nd percentile, respectively, on the Iowa Test. That's slightly below average, but not too bad given the respective high poverty indexes of the two schools — 177 and 167 (the higher the number, the poorer the student body). What about the conventional public schools in Helena? Well, the Beech Crest 1-6 school scored at 43, with a 181 poverty index. The West Side 1-6 school was at 40 with a 188 poverty index. The Eliza Miller 7-8 school tailed off to a 33 score, but with the highest possible 200 poverty index. Nobody would confuse KIPP students with rich kids, but it's worth noting that they are better off economically to some degree than those remaining in public schools. Also, the scores — though impossible to directly compare because of different school structures — don't seem to vary dramatically at the elementary level from the KIPP scores.

* LITTLE ROCK: eStem is another charter school with significant Walton backing and regular cheerleading from charter advocate Walter Hussman, the publisher of the D-G. Its K-4 school scored at 63; it's 5-8 school at 55 and its 9th grade at 52. But note that its poverty index was at the comfortable middle class level — 55 to 56, which makes it among the most advantaged schools.

And what about those terrible Little Rock schools? Well, some of them are doing OK, such as the magnet schools the district is seeking to protect in court from charter school raids. Gibbs, a K-6 magnet in the Little Rock District, scored at 68, with a 71 percent poverty index. Mann Magnet, for 6-8 graders, had a 52 composite score with a 100 percent poverty index. In short, these schools did about as well or better than eStem with poorer students. Or how about Williams Magnet, with a 73 percent composite score and a 77 percent poverty index — another with higher scores and poorer students? Or how about Rockefeller elementary downtown, with a high poverty index of 171, but a composite score of 45?

You can pick your own cherries, of course. Undoubtedly, there are juicy fruits, on an individual basis, to support just about any proposition. Yes, there are some abysmally performing public schools, even taking impoverished students into account.

The broad theme is that some schools are making a difference, some are not. "Charter" is not a magic word, any more than being a non-charter is a guarantee of failure. Replicability remains the national dilemma in education. But this much is clear: Poverty counts in test performance. Any ranking that doesn't take this into account is a ranking of marginal value.

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