“This progress indicates the reforms are working,” said White, as he touted the fact that, “Twenty-one districts in total grew more than ten points.”
That set off warning bells in the mind of Dr. Mercedes Schneider. She’s a teacher in southeast Louisiana’s St. Tammany Parish, and earned her doctorate in applied statistics.” She took a closer look at the school-by-school scores.
“Logical score improvements are from one year to the next maybe five points–maybe 7 points. Maybe 8 points,” says Schneider. “Here we had jumps of ten, fifteen, twenty, twenty-five-plus points, and overwhelmingly it was the high schools and the combination schools having these jumps in scores.“
According to the Louisiana Department of Education’s own analysis, 87 percent of the state’s public school that teach the high school grades saw improvement in their performance scores. Statewide, 2 percent of elementary and middle schools showed double-digit growth in their scores, but 70 percent of high schools and 40 percent of combination schools gained ten or more points.
Dr. Schneider points out that Louisiana has three times as many elementary and middle schools as it has high schools and combination schools, so the distribution of higher scores should have followed that pattern.
““I found that the high school/combination schools outnumbered the elementary/middle schools seven-and-a-half to one, as far as certain score jumps,” Schneider says, adding, “The flags went up.”
Dr. Schneider isn’t the only one who saw red flags in the school performance scores. Herb Bassett has a master’s degree in mathematics, and teaches in central Louisiana’s LaSalle Parish. His analysis of the high school performance scores showed all the numbers were skewed upward by an average of nearly 12 points, and he looked into the state’s formula to determine why and where the jump occurred.
Bassett says the biggest variation came from the changeover from Graduation Exit Exams—also known as GEEs—to End-Of-Course testing, more commonly called the EOCs.
“The changeover of the tests was probably a poor guess on the part of the Department of Education,” says Bassett. “When they set up the system in 2010, they set up certain point values that they retained, even though they knew that the scores were going to jump, based on that.”
Dr. Schneider explains that the grading scale for schools is linked to the GEE grading scale, but when the tests were changed to EOCs, the grading scale was not recalibrated. She says it’s like having a grading scale based on inches, then using a metric measuring tape.
“If I’m 80-plus inches tall, I’m an A, and I’m not 80-plus inches tall,” says Schneider. “Then some other metric is used to measure me than inches—centimeters. I’m 153 centimeters, so if that grading scale doesn’t change, and now I’m 153, well that’s above 80. And I didn’t grow an inch.”
Bassett puts it a different way, saying, “It’s like comparing football scores and basketball scores. When you generate these school performance scores, the End-Of-Course tests just simply generate higher numbers. So that was about 7-and-a-half points of gain right there.”
In addition, Bassett says, the 2012 school performance score grading scale expanded the graduation rates category, and made more schools eligible for “bonus points”.
“If you had a graduation rate above 80% in the past, then you got extra points put on,” Bassett explains. “This year they changed the formula so that you would get extra points for having a graduation rate over 65%–which tacked on an average of about 4-point-zero points to the scores.”
Bassett adds, “The part that concerns me greatly is the adjustment of that factor. It had no purpose other than simply to raise scores.”
“In 2010 BESE passed policies to include graduation rates and test scores in calculating a school’s letter grade. Schools rose to the challenge and excelled on the measures created in 2010. In 2012 BESE established an even higher bar, to take effect in 2013, by including rigorous measures such as the ACT and Advanced Placement scores in high school letter grades. Schools succeeded at the last mission; now it is time for a more challenging mission.”
Superintendent White has been touring the state, giving out bonus checks to schools that increased their performance scores enough to be designated “Top Gains”—based on the state’s 2012 scoring system. 440 of Louisiana’s 1268 public schools have been awarded “Top Gains” status.
Bassett warns that–according to his analysis–there will be another jump in school performance scores next year. This time, the elementary and middle schools will reap the benefits of bonus points, to be awarded to schools with ten or more students that have previously tested below grade-level.
“The bonus points will be based on the students exceeding their value-added model,” Bassett explains. “That means they make a guess at how much that student should progress. If it exceeds that guess, then they get in the pool that’s eligible for the bonus points.”
Bassett predicts this will result in a large number of schools that are currently rated “F” moving out of failure status, and earning a “D” grade instead.