As legislators grapple with how much money to allocate to our public schools, and the public grapples with whether public schools are the right place to educate their children, and educators work to prove their effectiveness, one thing has become crystal clear: we need better measures of success. And we need better tools. Tools for information-sharing, tools to produce measures, and tools to display the results of those measurements. A tool is different than a table. A table generally requires interpretation and specialized knowledge. A tool presents that information in a more user-friendly way.
Case in point: the newest list of failing schools was released last week. As defined in the Alabama Accountability Act (AAA), a school is failing if its standardized test results were in the bottom 6% of schools three or more times over the past 6 years. There will always be a bottom 6%. That is inherent in any ranking or comparison system. And the public has no way of verifying the rankings nor the methodology used to name the schools on the list.
Numbers don’t tell the whole story. But they start the conversation.
Consider the following three stylized arguments, which you can hear in some form almost every week:
- Only one-third of our students are reading at grade level; our schools are failing;
- 95 percent of the teachers in this district receive satisfactory ratings, but that can’t be accurate, because only half the students are proficient in math and reading;
- These reforms are working – state test scores have risen steadily.
All three of these inferences are inappropriate for one primary reason: they fail to acknowledge that raw, unadjusted testing results – whether actual scores/proficiency rates or changes in those scores/rates – are not, by themselves, credible measures of school performance. They are largely (imperfect) measures of student performance. There is a difference. (DiCarlo, February 2012)
The AAA forced a comparison and a ranking to be made, based on standardized test scores, reasoning that parents will choose better schools for their children when given meaningful information and the opportunity and means to do so (through scholarships and tax credits).
But what would parents choose if given real choice? What do parents and families actually want for their children? (This publication offers a good bit of insight.) How can they learn which schools truly offer what they want for their children?
Given the measurements that we currently have available, parents and families need good tools to provide meaningful information, including comparisons and rankings, to allow them a way to enter the conversation about our public schools.
Tools for Comparing Measures
Getting access to data about your child’s school (e.g., graduation rates, attendance rates, teacher experience, expenditures per student), particularly when you would like to compare your child’s school with other Alabama’s schools, is difficult, if not impossible. It is simply not available.
The Alabama State Department of Education (ALSDE) provides no tools to compare or rank schools or school districts in Alabama. Indeed, the only tool the ALSDE makes available is the Accountability Reporting System, which is limited to two years worth of standardized test data. And those results compares apples to oranges: last year’s third grade student performance with this year’s third grade student performance.
Work continues to produce a meaningful report card about each school, mandated by the state legislature in 2012. Report cards and grading systems are becoming increasingly popular as the public, the ones responsible for paying for public schools, wants a user-friendly way to discern how well our schools are doing and whether our tax dollars are being efficiently allocated.
The Public Affairs Research Council of Alabama (PARCA) produced a series of reports delineating student performance in various subgroups on the Alabama Reading and Mathematics Test (ARMT) for the 2004-2005 through 2011-2012 school years. This report was, hands down, the best report available for determining how well students in your school were performing compared with their peers in that subgroup. No cross-subgroup comparisons were made, though, which limited those parents who didn’t want the limit of comparing their Hispanic children with other Hispanic children, or their impoverished children with other impoverished children. The label itself, the grouping itself, keeps a ceiling in place. But it was the best tool available.
The ARMT has been discontinued, and whether PARCA can recreate that report’s ability to convey results easily remains to be seen.
Across the country there is one tool that deserves top honors: California’s. Their tool allows you to compare a district to other districts similar to it based on a number of factors including enrollment, the Ethnic Diversity Index, the % proficient in Math or English, along with other factors. There are school finance measures, too. Tough on the eyes, but very helpful.
The Texas Tribune offers a Public Schools Data Explorer, but the data is three years old and likely not as useful as newer data could be.
New Jersey produces a lot of data, but it is cumbersome to manipulate and no comparison tools are available.
The challenge, then, is to produce a tool displaying meaningful information that parents and families can understand and will actually use when making educational choices for their children. Until that happens, here are a few for consideration.
A Few Cool Tools – Lots of Different Measures and Data Available
As you click through these, ask yourself if this information is useful to you as a parent, family member or community member. Does this measure tell you anything about whether or not the school is successful? Some of these measures are demographic, others are output-based, as in test scores and discipline rates. Each tool has its limitations, and it is important to note how current the data is. Check the source of the data for dates if it is not listed.
Remember, too, that the data in the table is only as good as the data received from the source. The original sources, in most instances, are the school districts themselves.
Click on the image to explore that tool. [hr]
If you like rankings, you’ll love this tool. You can rank districts, elementary schools, middle schools, and high schools. You can customize the columns to include various demographic descriptors and even students per teacher (though that is not the same as class size). [br] [clearboth] [hr]
This site rates (as opposed to ranks) schools based on standardized test scores. It offers community members the ability to review the school, adding a bit of qualitative data to the mix. In addition, it allows you to look at multiple schools across a city. [br] [clearboth] [hr]
This tool allows you to view NAEP data from 1992-2013. [br] [clearboth] [hr]
This requires you to download spreadsheets to really get to the data. Participation and scores are reported at the state level, not broken down by district. Demographic data is available, as well as how students in public school participated in scored broken apart from private schools. [br] [clearboth] [hr]
How about taking a look at how children in your school district perform on tests compared with the rest of the world? This is a very simplistic look at what percentile the children in your school district performed on math and reading standardized tests in 2009 compared with the rest of the world. [br] [clearboth] [hr]
EdWeek has an interactive tool to allow you to view multiple areas of measurements and indicators, including school spending, teacher quality, achievement and standards. [br] [clearboth] [hr]
This tool allows you to look at the demographics of students as well as the numbers of teachers, librarians, and total revenue. The data is from 2010. [br] [clearboth] [hr]
The Civil Rights Data Collection – MULTIPLE AREAS
This database is rich with data, though the information is from 2009. The kinds of data you can find include discipline data (whether students of certain races or abilities are disproportionately being suspended), teacher salaries, numbers of counselors, children enrolled in prekindergarten, percentage of children enrolled in advanced classes by subgroup compared to the overall population…and the list goes on. There is even information about bullying and harassment. But there are no simple comparison options, so you have to jot down the details. [br] [clearboth] [hr]
This is an organization that provides financial consulting, concentrating on urban school districts. They have amassed an interesting set of easy-to-use tools for school officials to use to help them begin to understand the various areas in which their decisions resonate across the district. These are helpful to the public because they allow us to better understand all of the moving parts within a school district. [br] [clearboth] [hr]
This is a bit cumbersome but does allow you to choose districts among whom you wish to compare district financial information. Read the instructions. If you do not choose “manually” as the method to select peers, the tool will compare your district with districts across the country. [br] [clearboth] [hr]
After you click around, please share your thoughts here or on the Facebook page about what measures are meaningful to you and how best to determine and display measures of success.