When I read the statistics, I could hardly believe it.  How could the Grosse Pointe Public School System have two high schools with identical curriculum, course offerings, hiring and pedagogical practices and yet have one perform so differently than the other?

How could the students at Grosse Pointe North outperform their peers at Grosse Pointe South by 15% in math proficiency and by an amazing 84% in reading proficiency?

No, that’s not a typo.

What’s that?  You say you read a report that seems to show the exact opposite?  We’ll get to that.  But let’s start with what has transpired in public education whereby standardized test results are as newsworthy as they’ve become.

Transparency, Testing and Tea Parties: The Accountability Era of Public Education in America

Public schools today are at the eye of the hurricane brought about by a confluence of some historically significant influences.  This is not a new pattern in our history. 

The United States has been traumatized by the Great Recession.  It has shaken our confidence.  Historical when this has happened, the nation turns to public schools – either for blame, salvation, or both. 

  • At the dawn of the 20th century, the massive influx of immigrant students alarmed America.  How will these children ever learn to speak English and get “Americanized”?  This was essentially the birth of public education in America.
  • Mirroring the effort to integrate a racially divided country, the Supreme Court’s 1954 decision Brown v. Board of Education put public schools literally on the front lines of integration and indeed to be the means to integrate the country.
  • The 1957 Sputnik launch was taken as evidence that the United States had fallen behind internationally in math and science education.  A renewed call for “back to basics” and increased rigor ensued – and has arguably never subsided.
  • In the last 1970’s and early 1980’s, scarred by the energy crisis, the Iran hostage event, combined with a perceived downward trend in SAT scores, a blue ribbon committee publishes a report titled “A Nation at Risk” that contains apocryphal language warning that our national educational deficiencies are in fact a threat to national security. The message reached fertile ground in these Cold War times.

“A Nation at Risk” was published in 1983.  Few documents have had as great an impact on public education.  Locally even consider the Grosse Pointe Public School System’s tag line is “Excellence in Education.”  I doubt it’s coincidence that the Reagan panel’s title was the National Commission on Excellence in Education.  This report launched the “Accountability and Testing Era” for public schools.

Previous to this, as a country, standardized tests had never been the primary emphasis of American public schools – and the trend has continued ever since in the form of George W. Bush’s “No Child Left Behind” (NCLB) and then again with Barack Obama’s “Race to the Top” (RttT).  Standardized test results are the very foundation of these national laws. 

They have been codified to such an extent that performance on standardized tests can drive not only funding decisions, but dictate who can be hired, and whether a neighborhood school can even remain open.  NCLB was heavier on sticks while RttT has thrown in some carrots.  Strip off the party labels and they are nearly identical.  Amazingly at the peak of partisan acrimony, reliance on standardized tests has enjoyed almost unflinching bipartisan support.

The American public meanwhile has, by and large, accepted as gospel that better test scores mean better schools.  Drop in scores, or stagnancy, is rarely balanced against the concurrent American desire to educate every student and therefore test every student.  Following our core democratic principles, this is a uniquely American phenomenon.

Is such narrow emphasis on math and reading consistent with other American core values?   Many would consider “American Ingenuity” a key contributor to our rise as an economic power.  Standardized tests do little to measure this and many other character traits that we value as citizens and families.  As a practical matter, standardized test de-emphasize these as well as performing, practical and liberal arts.

The rise of  Tea Party movement and its call for smaller, less invasive government stands in stark contrast to NCLB and RttT which injects the federal government into local school system governance to an unprecedented degree.  Interest in accountability appears to trump interest in separation of powers and smaller government.

The bottom line of the Accountability Era is, well, the bottom line.  The sentiment seems to be, boil the output of the public schools down to a single number.  Stack all those numbers against each other and reward those at the top and penalize those at the bottom.  Not only is this the path we are on, we are well down it as well.

We’re Racing to the Top while trying to Leave No Child Behind – making a very difficult, unproven task a high stakes game of winners and losers

As the well crafted name would imply, No Child Left Behind and its progeny, RttT, would seem to have the best interests of our nation’s children in mind.  Some would charge the effort has been co-opted or even borne out of political interests – that public schools were sent on a fool’s errand to prove they could not deliver thereby paving the way for charter school and voucher expansion.  But one thing is undisputable. Never has a country made standardized testing such a high stakes game without knowing if the strategy will pay dividends – not knowing if the unintended consequences will actually hurt our children.

As NCLB’s 2014 deadline approaches, it’s pretty clear we have learned that the country cannot legislate its way to better academic results, regardless of whether the intentions were pure or not.  It’s just not happening.  Whether this is the fault of public schools or whether the public schools are a reflection of our society in general is a philosophical debate to which too little attention is paid.

On a less philosophical level, an enduring attribute of the Accountability Era is best summarized by the term “adequate yearly progress,” one that has been burned into the national vocabulary.  Its lofty goal was to ensure that every year results would improve.  If you cannot demonstrate improvement, you were graded down – or perhaps even shut down.

This remains the case today.  In a series of state issued reports, scoring systems have been introduced that put significant emphasis, formulaically, to capture year over year standardized test score trends.  Schools are stack ranked, weighted for trend, so that even those performing at statistically high levels and meeting the very conditions of NCLB might appear to be “worse schools” than others – a dubious practice with dubious benefits for everyone involved.

Are we really measuring student progress and is there any consideration of scale?

The measurement of a school’s standardized test score trend is ostensibly a measure of its progress. Philosophically this is a logical goal.  When put into practice, however, the state is not really measuring individual student progress at all. 

Comparing one year’s class to the ensuing year’s class would do no such thing anymore than if you or I were to compare the scores of two of our own children against one another on a test they each took their junior year. Intuitively we know our children are different. Top to bottom rankings aren’t as intuitive.

Statistically the data has more relevance with a larger samples.  Comparing two children this way would be ridiculous, but Michigan has over 1.6 million students.  Percentage changes on that scale have some merit.  But building level scale?  In a typical elementary school a tested class might have 50 to 70 students.  In a binary measure of proficiency, discussed below, a swing of 5 to 7 students either way represents a 10% movement.  In a high school, 30 students could do the same.

What implications might there be if the students tested had absolutely no concern for how they scored?  If they felt the outcome of the test would have no bearing on their grade or future opportunities?  Or if they felt they had no chance of pursuing an education beyond their current level?  Or even simpler, if a handful of students are just having a bad day?

Test scores have their place, but like any individual data point they have limitations and need context.  I believe history will view the current era launched by “A Nation at Risk” as incredibly over-leveraged on standardized test scores.  We need to find the balance across all the data points and indicators available to us.  Standardized tests are just one.

Proficiency, cut scores, and fraud in standardized test reporting gives us a glimpse of the politicization of public schools.

State level standardized test results are reported in terms of “proficiency,” a measure declaring whether a student has adequately mastered curricular content.  A “cutoff score,” commonly referred to as a “cut score,”  is established by the state to represent a percentage of questions answered correctly on a test. 

If a student scores above the cut score they are considered proficient.  Therefore scores are not presented in terms of their percentage of ovals filled in properly, but rather in a rather binary “proficient” or “not proficient” manner.  In this way higher scoring student tests are not raising the average of the lower scores – a binary process reflective of a digital world that wants to see everything in 1’s and 0’s.

The cut score used to determine proficiency is in itself already an arbitrary number and therefore another source of controversy.  Just this summer New York City public schools were found to have lowered (thereby making easier) their standardized test cut score passing level to give the appearance that their learning results were improving.  This is becoming exhibit A of the unintended consequences of high stakes testing.  (Read “When 81% Passing Becomes 18%” in this New York Times article.)  And we’re not even talking about teaching to the test.  This is simple institutional fraud.  What was intended to help children is now bringing about the worst in adults.

This story also present a lesson in the politicization of test scores and by extension of public schools themselves.  In the Big Apple, public schools are controlled by the mayor.  “School improvement” was a major plank in Mayor Bloomberg’s political platform.  Student scores were therefore manipulated for political benefit.  This is a bad combination, yet some people want to see more mayoral control.  Many would argue against school board based governance, but at least it is generally clear of party and election politics.

Since state standardized test results are represented as a percentage of test takers who demonstrated proficiency, another source of controversy is whether all students eligible do indeed take the test.  Are all schools as diligent as others in assuring students of all abilities take these tests, including special needs students?  Is it just possible that a principal whose job may be at risk might try to control the testing environment?  Something to contemplate.  Don’t think it’s not happening.

A recent and significant shift in the Economically Disadvantaged population is a massive change in a key variable.

But let’s stay in the present for now and get back to my astonishment for how Grosse Pointe North can so significantly outperform Grosse Pointe South.  In any scientific analysis variables are a consideration.  If we are going to place so much emphasis on standardized test scores and their year over year trend then key variables should be factored. 

Not all variables can be captured and indeed most are not measurable. One variable, however, that has been consistently recorded and generally accepted as a significant indicator of student performance on standardized tests is whether a student is Economically Disadvantaged (ED) or Non-Economically Disadvantaged (NED).

ED students have long been accounted for in terms of those who qualify for federal Free or Reduced Lunches.  Here is a link to the Federal Guidelines for Free and Reduced Lunch qualifications.  For quick reference, in 2009 a family of four would qualify for Free Lunches if their annual income level was $28,665 or less.  Reduced Lunch qualification in 2009 was $40,793 or less, also for a family of four.

True to pattern, since federal funds are involved, reporting on standardized tests for these students is required.  Below is the comparison of North’s ED student population versus South’s ED student population on standardized tests.  At long last, here is North’s advantage:

Economically Disadvantaged Student Proficiency on 2008 Standardized Test in Reading and Math

  G.P. North High School G.P. South High School North’s Performance Advantage
Reading 46% 25% 84%
Math 38% 33% 15%

 

Plainly stated among Economically Disadvantaged students, those who qualify for free and reduced lunches, North has outperformed South in terms of the percentage of those students who are judged by the state to be proficient in Reading and Math.  How many ED students attend each school? That’s coming.

So North must be the better school, right?  No?  Isn’t that the conclusion others have reached from other reports?  I wouldn’t conclude, based on the data  above, that North is better than South any more than I would look at South’s higher ranking in the state’s recent “Top to Bottom” report and conclude it was the better school than North. 

I propose a new bottom line maxim in the Bottom Line Era.  Overly narrow interpretations of standardized test results must be avoided and balanced with other means of evaluating the output of our programs. 

What has long been termed the Achievement Gap is not new to public education in the United States, but must now enter the consciousness of our community.

Disregard for the moment North’s performance advantage and consider the absolute nature of the results.  Grosse Pointe’s economically disadvantaged students are performing at a markedly lower level than their NED counterparts.  Is Grosse Pointe unique in this regard?  Sadly, absolutely not.  And to be fair, one of the stated objectives of NCLB was to shine a light on this issue.  Clearly it has. 

ED student performance relative to NED performance is colloquially called the Achievement Gap.  It is one of the most studied and reported issues in the history of public education in the United States borne out of our democratic principles that seek a free an equal education for all America’s children.  Recently Stanford University published a composite report on the issue than can be read here.

The Stanford report contains a very strong visual (reprinted below)demonstrating the correlation between ED classification and academic performance (in their case among the state of California’s elementary school population).

image

The correlation and trend line is undeniable.  Generally, the greater the concentration of ED students in a school the lower the composite score on standardized tests.  This poses one of the great questions of our time: Can public education be held exclusively accountable for the widening U.S. economic gap that itself has a clear affect on standardized tests by which public schools are now almost exclusively measured?  This is a circuitous and pretty heavy “chicken or egg” style question.  We’ll leave that for another day, but keep it in mind in the context of high stakes testing.

Back to the notion of ED status as a variable relative to “yearly performance.”  Shouldn’t we expect that the ranks of the economically disadvantaged have been growing as a result of the Great Recession?  Particularly here in the state of Michigan?  The statistics make clear that the ED population is growing nationally and at the state level. 

In 2001 the United States’ the 37% of students were classified as ED.  In the same year Michigan’s ED student population was 29.6%.  The most recent national statistics for 2008 showed the US ED student population had grown to 42.9%  By Michigan Department of Education figures for 2009-10 Michigan has climbed to an astonishing 45% reflecting a 50% increase in Free and Reduced Lunch enrollment from 2001.

Has Grosse Pointe been immune from this state and national trend?  Consider this data from each building in the Grosse Pointe Public School System showing the change of composition of our ED population pre-dating the Great Recession (from 1995) and then in the midst of it (from 2006 to 2009):

Economically Disadvantaged Report
As a district, a full 10.5% of our student population qualifies for free and reduced lunches, the proxy for Economically Disadvantaged classification.  In aggregate, our composite percentage is obviously well below the state and national averages.

But the aggregate numbers don’t tell the full story and, taking a page from the state’s Top to Bottom rating methodology, trend should be an equal consideration.  But consider also the disparity in the ED population among North and South and their respective feeder schools.  Two-thirds of the ED population feeds into North and one-third into South.

Relative to recently reported test scores, look at what has happened to this population in just the last three years.  Poupard, already with the highest concentration of ED students in the district in 2006, has seen that population nearly double again in the last three years.  Little Poupard Elementary now has more ED students than all of Grosse Pointe South, which is five times larger in terms of student enrollment.  Nearly half of Poupard students are economically disadvantaged.  Allow that to sink in. 

15 years ago North and South had just 2% and 1% ED population respectively.  Those proportions have held steady – while both have been multiplied by a factor of 7.  In the last three years, corresponding with recent state “Top to Bottom” reports measuring yearly progress over this period of time, North’s ED population has almost doubled. 

Considering that the state reported numbers are of a binary nature (proficient or non-proficient) and that higher scores cannot mask lower scores, if North has twice the number of ED students as South, with a proficiency ratio of 38% and 45% in math and reading, the end result is obvious.  Despite, thankfully, North demonstrating greater ability to help ED students become proficient, the volume of students is a clear contributor of the proficiency measure disparity.

Consider this excerpt from the previously referenced Stanford study: “On average, a ten percent increase in the percentage of students eligible for the school lunch program is associated with a 23 point decrease in the Academic Performance Index.”  Now look at the ED population increases nationally, statewide and even locally and put two and two together.

What might North’s and Poupard’s scores and “ranking” look like if they had the same proportion of ED students as South and Kerby? Or if Kerby had the same as Poupard?  Or if North were only as successful as South in helping the ED population of students to demonstrate proficiency?  Legitimate questions all.

The people of Grosse Pointe were not immune to the Great Recession.

As a community, we need to come to grips with the fact that our economically disadvantaged population has grown significantly in the last three years and is now ten times greater than our 1995 levels.  Sadly so are many other communities across the state and the country.

If we are going to place the same emphasis on standardized tests as the federal government and Lansing, a question that we must contemplate very seriously, our ED population growth simply has to be part of our analysis and ultimately our response strategy.  In comparison to other high schools with whom it is are most commonly compared (including South), North’s proportion of ED students is notably higher.  Ignoring this reality would be folly.

Struggles with serving this population of students needs to become a greater part of the public consciousness of our community as it has been nationally.  The fact is, it has long been a part of most Michigan communities’ consciousness.  It just so happens now that we even have one school that even moderately reflects the economic diversity of the state.

Detroit Public Schools have been the poster child for school reform, and certainly they have not done themselves any favors, but to add to their growing misery index, DPS’ student population is comprised of a staggering 79% of economically disadvantaged students.  Harper Woods School, with whom we share a border, stands at 66% – more than six times the proportion among our schools.  As regional citizens we need to reflect upon that.

North’s achievements over the last three years, in light of all this data, should give us more reason to be proud of what Principal Tim Bearden and his staff have been able to achieve rather than to accuse them.  Consider the vaunted Newsweek rankings and how it indexes on proportion of Advanced Placement tests taken per pupil.

I reviewed the Newsweek data from the last five years.  Michigan has nearly 800 public high schools.  Newsweek ranks those by their AP/IB tests taken index.  Over the last five years in Michigan only 11 schools have been in the state’s top 20 every year.  Two of those are magnet/charter schools that pre-select their students.  I discount them significantly since, to me, that’s not a true public school.

Two of the remaining nine are Grosse Pointe North and Grosse Pointe South.  Clearly both of our high schools have created a culture of high achievement that encourages students to stretch their academic comfort zone.  And the statistics show North’s students have to make a greater stretch.  Good for North, I say.  This is a strength that we can uniquely leverage.

In the Accountability Era we must keep our perspective.  We can’t rationalize low performance and this is not a plea for us to do so.  But neither should we over-index on any one data point either –both good and bad.  High standardized test scores should not lull us into complacency not delude us into thinking we can’t improve.  The rising ED population is not a resignation to improvement.  The point here is that is must be factored in our strategy and programs.

The bigger questions is how do we wish to judge the output of our program.  Will we do so as Washington D.C. and Lansing wish us to with such massive indexing on standardized test scores?  Or do we take the opportunity now to make our own decisions.  Do we not stand better position to judge what is best for the Grosse Pointe Public School System?  I believe we are, we can, we must, and we will.

The strategy we have chosen, and which we must refine, must ensure we service equally the needs of students along every point along the intellectual and economic spectrum.  That is our mission and responsibility as a public school and as citizens of this community.

Cognizance of the Achievement Gap is not new to our district’s educators.  They are already in motion at all levels. It is an issue that must be attended to everywhere and the earlier the intervention the better. 

  • Our recently introduced no-fee All Day Kindergarten program will prove to be a valuable asset, particularly for the economically disadvantaged, by providing a better foundation at an earlier phase of development.
  • Reading specialists at each of the elementary schools are providing augmented or more individualized instruction.
  • The FAST Reading program, jump started in cooperation with the Grosse Pointe Foundation for Public Education, is a wonderful example of how we are responding as a community to help challenged learners.
  • Every year for the last four years our middle and high schools have introduced new course offerings to delivering growing remediation needs.  This is particularly important in serving the needs of students who enter our district well after elementary school. Last year 20% of North juniors entered the district within the previous three years.  They received none of the benefit of our high quality elementary or middle school programs.
  • North in particular has implemented innovative strategies to better connect students to the school with Challenge Day and additional extra-curricular programs as examples. 
  • The high school tutorial period has been formalized to augment traditional class period instruction. 
  • Mentoring programs and new student transition programs have also been in implemented. 

North’s leadership and initiative in taking the Achievement Gap head on while also maintaining their core strengths, as demonstrated by the Newsweek rankings, are an absolute point of pride for the district.

To solve any problem it first must be understood so it can be properly analyzed and solved.  The Economically Disadvantaged issue must be framed properly and constructively.

In the final analysis we must recognize the Economically Disadvantaged Achievement gap issue as a universal one.  This is not a “Poupard Issue” or a “North Issue” and is most certainly not a “North versus South Issue” despite the inclination of some to frame it as such.  This is not a constructive means of focusing on the challenge.

Finally, to “put the moose on the table” as the saying goes, this is not a race issue.  Clinically and educationally Grosse Pointe is dealing with a purely economic issue and we should, and must, speak freely and openly about it in those terms if we want to make progress on it.

Every single one of our schools has economically disadvantaged students, not just North and Poupard.  Every single one of our schools has seen this population grow exponentially since 1995.  We need to share best practicies and successes across the district to help all of these students reach their potential. 

In this context, this challenge is our greatest opportunity to distinguish ourselves further as a world class district.  Under certain circumstances, many districts should almost be expected to deliver outstanding results, by any variety of measures.  But what of those required to deal with a more significant challenge?  Are we collectively up to that task?  We have proven that we already are.

I look at what we were able to accomplish financially over the last couple of years.  I believe we solved some economic problems in a way that will prove to be the standard other districts will follow.  We can now leverage that newfound strength to address our next greatest challenge, finding a way to truly serve the needs of each and every student – particularly as those students and their needs change every year.

If any district has the means, wherewithal, and motivation to enable students to reach their full potential it is the Grosse Pointe Public School System.  As is our Mission, we have all the pieces in place to adapt to the requirements of each our students and their families to foster the development of “knowledgeable, responsible, and caring citizens who embrace life’s possibilities with a passion for continuous learning.”

Let us resolve to make these words come to life for each and every student each and every day.