Anytime you are forming a new partnership, you learn all you can about that partner, right? If it’s a business partnership, you learn how successful the partner has been, the techniques used to make them successful, and so on.
The same path needs to be taken to forming a meaningful partnership with your child’s teacher and school. You need to learn all that you can about the educating that is happening (or not) in your child’s school.
And that is easier said than done here in Alabama. We are not known for our over-abundance of education-related data. We are certainly not known for our transparency in sharing that data.
What You Need to Find Out – The Basics
Regardless of in what grade your child is currently enrolled, you need to find a few basic pieces of information about the partners in your child’s education:
- Objective achievement data for your child’s grade – This is just a long way of saying you need to know how children in your child’s grade and in your child’s school are performing on standardized tests. While tests are only one snapshot measure of how much children have learned, it is currently the ONLY achievement data we have for those in grades 3 through 8.
- What the achievement data shows for other schools in your school district – if you only have one elementary, middle and high school in your district, you can skip this step. If you have multiple schools, you need to take a hard look at the other schools in your district to determine if achievement is the same across the district or if it isn’t.
- What the achievement data shows for the schools to which your child is zoned as your child ages through the district – Look at the middle school achievement data for which your child is zoned. Look at the high school data that exists (not a whole lot, by the way) and determine if the high school is successful (some would say “successful enough”) for you to be comfortable trusting your child’s education to those responsible for teaching your child in the later years.
Yes, we are focusing on achievement data here. We will look at programming, funding, and other factors affecting achievement in the next few posts. Right now, let’s stay focused on achievement data. Cause that alone can get confusing. (Pssst: don’t get too hung up on the whole Accountability Act “failing school” label thing. The calculations don’t really show the whole story.)
A quick note about teachers: Some schools will share the education level of the teachers employed by the school, but most don’t (and you won’t find it in any database anywhere). And while a “highly-qualified” teacher (HQT) was a big deal when No Child Left Behind (NCLB) was introduced and implemented, the definition of what a teacher should know in order to successfully teach where the children learn is changing in Alabama. In 2004, the percentage of HQT was 76.69%. The current numbers are much-improved. Here are the numbers of HQT in school systems in Alabama as of 2011-2012:
How To Find Achievement Data
You need to know what test data you want to review. For grades 3 through 8, that means the Alabama Reading and Mathematics Test (ARMT+). For high school, the Alabama High School Graduation Exam (AHSGE) is admittedly a low bar, so perhaps a better measure to look at is the “4-year cohort graduation rate”, commonly called the “cohort graduation rate”. What this measures is what percent of students started school in the 9th grade and graduated four years later. A “5-year cohort graduation rate” will be made available after the 2013-2014 school year, which will produce a percentage of students who started 9th grade and graduated 5 years later.
Please remember that test scores and graduation rates are two measures that are reduced to simple numbers, which is why folks like to look at them. These test scores do mean something, but they don’t mean everything. They cannot measure a school’s climate or program offerings. There are many other pieces of information you should gather to get fully informed, and those pieces will be noted in future posts.
We are focusing on achievement data today.
School-level achievement data. This data is only available for grades 3-8 and is based on the ARMT. Two places to look for this: the Alabama State Department of Education (ALSDE) web site and the Public Affairs Research Council of Alabama’s (PARCA) web site.
ALSDE’s tool makes you choose subject, grade, and particular demographic groups, and then you can view the report with two years’ worth of achievement data. Very cumbersome and impossible to view trends. Some would argue that trends are unfair, as you shouldn’t compare last year’s 3rd graders with this year’s 3rd graders. True. But we don’t currently have any publicly-available reports that show what kind of progress students are making from year to year.
A better way to view school-level data, in my opinion, is with PARCA’s tool. At this link, you can choose multiple years for one school (by entering the school name in the “search” box). But you still have to look at one year at a time with this report.
Three things to note about PARCA’s reports. The first is that while the ALSDE considers Level III on the ARMT+ to be meeting expectations, PARCA uses the percentage of students scoring at Level IV. PARCA argues that Level IV is equivalent to “meets expectations” on the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), which sets a higher bar than our Alabama standards do.
The second point is that you MUST get comfortable with the color-coding system that PARCA uses. At the beginning of each of the reports that you download is an explanation of the color-coding. Once you understand it, reviewing their reports is so easy.
The third point is that the bar is different for each demographic group (as in what percentage of students in that demographic group scored at level IV in the school, system, and state), and thus the color-coding reflects the bar for that particular demographic group relative to others in the same demographic group. (I promise it will make better sense if you look at a report.)
The ALSDE site is the same link as school-level data, but choose “Entire System” under the “Select a School” tab. Still you are stuck with only two years at a time.
The PARCA report is a much better report for looking at district-level data. To review all of the schools within your school district, click on this link, choose the year (2005 through 2012), click on your system, and download the PARCA report. The color-coding should make your review simple. Inter-district variations can be huge, and should generate some questions for you to ask of your principal if your school’s achievement level is lower than other schools in your district.
If you’d like to see where your school district “ranks” in the 2011-2012 ARMT results, you can check out these pages I created from the 2011-2012 ARMT data ranking school systems by grade and subject. These rankings are based on the percent of students scoring at Level III and IV, which the ALSDE uses to measure success. (PARCA uses only Level IV. Remember that.)
Comparison of school and/or district data. This is where things get tricky. You’ve obtained the reports from PARCA or the ALSDE and now you are attempting to make some comparisons in achievement. Educators will tell you that you have to consider factors like poverty (as measured by the number of students eligible to receive a free or reduced lunch) and funding. Those data points are for another post. Let’s stick with achievement for now. Again, I prefer the PARCA data, as it sets a higher bar for achievement and the color-coding makes comparisons exceedingly easy.
High school data. You can check out the ALSDE’s collection of AHSGE results. PARCA hasn’t created any high school achievement comparisons. If you want to view comparison data on the AHSGE, here are the directions to find that report:
Graduation rates are available on theALSDE site (same place indicated in the image above), or you can look at this post from June about the 2011-2012 graduation rates.
A third piece of data that may be helpful to you is to look at the number/percent of high school graduates who had to take remedial math and/or English classes at in-state public universities. The Alabama Commission on Higher Education (ACHE) reports each year and breaks it down by high school. Click on this link to view those reports.
The Future of Achievement Data
Just to keep things interesting, all of the measurements change as of this year, as do the tests. Check out this post for more information on the tests that will be taken by our children from here on out (or until the ALSDE changes their minds).
Work has begun to create a School Grading System, but that system won’t be unveiled for possibly a few more years. Until then, we are on our own if we want to view the achievement data for our public schools.
PARCA has done an outstanding job creating a tool to allow parents and families a way to understand achievement data for our younger students, but the bottom line is that we need better education data in Alabama. We have all sorts of computer capacity and spend millions of taxpayer dollars collecting data. But getting our hands on it is way too difficult. I have spent more than a decade tracking down education data, and instead of getting easier to find over the years, much of it is more obscured than ever before.
If you’d like some good reasoning about why we need better data, check out this resource from the Data Quality Campaign.
Coming up: more pieces of information that help us form meaningful partnerships with our children’s schools.