Pressure from feds prompted clarification of Arkansas school test scores | Arkansas Blog

Thursday, October 15, 2015

Pressure from feds prompted clarification of Arkansas school test scores

Posted By on Thu, Oct 15, 2015 at 12:02 PM

click to enlarge A ROCKY PROCESS: The definition of performance levels eventually prompted clarification and admission of error by state Education Department.
  • A ROCKY PROCESS: The definition of performance levels eventually prompted clarification and admission of error by state Education Department.
Stipulation: Boiling the notion of education proficiency down to 1-5 scoring is nuts. But that's what we do. So we might as well be scrupulously accurate and forthcoming in the process.

That's my preface to an update on the embarrassing episode in which the Arkansas Education Department was forced to take back an original communication that indicated a 3 on the PARCC student achievement test administered in Arkansas last year amounted to proficiency, when the designers of the test clearly intended for that to be a grade indicating more work was needed to be ready for college course work.

The difference was important. By suggesting that  3 was proficiency (though the specific word wasn't used), the state was saying 57 to 64 percent of students were getting the job done in the subjects tested, when the number was more like 21 to 37 percent. Even the higher numbers represented a drop from the test PARCC replaced last year. And yet another test will be used this year — one reason for more  skepticism about those who invest too much in comparing test scores.

The news of the use of a watered-down pass rate in Ohio and Arkansas broke Monday night in the Washington Post. I asked about it Tuesday morning. The state responded by saying it had never said a 3 was "proficient," but said it would be issuing a clarifying statement. Commissioner Johnny Key did so late Tuesday afternoon. He at least had the good grace then to say that the state had left a misleading impression in its release last week on the scores. Indeed. It did not tell the truth. The news release said a 3 reflected students being  "on track for college and career readiness."  And department officials, my Freedom of Information Act request shows, had known this for days.

I made a FOI request for internal communications on how these scores were presented. It indicated Arkansas officials had talked with Ohio officials, who'd also decided to indicate 3 was an acceptable score. News of this began circulating in school circles. Saturday, after Arkansas had released its scores, Key sent an e-mail to his staff saying he'd learned that the U.S. Department of Education intended to say, if asked, that it was "disappointed" the state had decided to denote a grade of 3 as "on track." That led, three days later, to a clarification and admission of error and removal of the news release from the department's website.

For this admission of error, Gary Newton, the Walton-paid school lobbyist, has cheered Key, as if he made a bold move for higher standards. Bad test news is good for the Waltonites in their aim of charterizing and voucheriziing Arkansas schools.

It's worth noting, however, that the change was done under pressure from the Obama administration. It's also worth noting that it occurred only after the department's communications office defended its original news release to me, though acknowledging a "clarification" was coming.

Given my experience, I award no trophies  for the state's delayed and grudging decision to set things straight. In defense of the state, the state Board of Education last Thursday DID adopt "cut" scores on the test that clearly indicated a 3 was short of college course readiness. To me, however, that only makes the original misleading characterization more deserving of criticism. Also, e-mail between Arkansas and Ohio spoke days before in "proficiency" terms about the meaning of 3, 4 and 5 scores, even if the news release didn't employ the word. By last Saturday, as a note from Key below shows, the state was preparing to retreat.l As late as Tuesday morning it wasn't prepared to admit error to me.

click to enlarge keyletter.jpg

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