Thursday, May 4, 2017

A Superintendent Writes... Playing Against a Stacked Deck

A LYS Superintendent writes the following:


I’ve been thinking about this for a while and admit that I don’t have the answer. It is clear from state testing data that our students do better every year they are out of 3rd grade.  I am confining this discussion to reading but that trend is true across the board.  By the time our students get to high school their scores, except for ELA, are about where you would expect them to be for a population that is over 95% economically disadvantaged.

My baseline assumption is this phenomenon is true because our Pre-K through 2 teachers have been struggling.  Something that we have been making strides in remedying.  But something else occurred to me when I was reviewing district Lexile levels (note: Lexile levels are from a normalized distribution of a nationwide sampling). Now you know the community we serve is impoverished.  Which brings to me ask:

Is it possible in a community sufficiently isolated, sufficiently small, sufficiently poor to have a distribution significantly less than a normalized scale?  Of course it's possible, but what do you think the chances are: Poor, Fair, Good?  

I ask because in order to pass the 3rd grade reading STAAR the state sets a correlated Lexile level of 510L.  It’s easy to see above that (510L), the mean in a nationwide normalized distribution is 540L which means the state says you can only be slightly below the mean and still pass the STAAR exam.  

But what if you start with a population that significantly skewed left because of the various factors I listed, and perhaps other factors?   

What are the odds of having a population that does not look like the national norm sample at all?  What if your sample is skewed hard left?  If that is the case, would not trying to push many standard deviations to the right be mathematically virtually impossible? At least in the short run?

Yet another way to explain why the students do better as the years go on is the Lexile level ranges narrow each year.  

What if the state has a fundamental misunderstanding of normalized distributions?  What if a school’s population looks nothing like the national norm?  I think this is testable.  Test all elementary students at midterm for their Lexile level and see what the distribution looks like.  

SC Response
I was writing about a similar observation to yours, yesterday.  Basically, it is very difficult to perform above your wealth level in the early elementary grades.  The reason for this is that wealth of the family is the primary driver of student performance. In the early school years, home experience significantly outweighs school experience.  If instruction were uniform across the state, the wealth of family effect would always be the primary driver of student performance.  However, if a student were exposed to above average instruction for an extended period of time (multiple years), then the quality of delivered instruction would become the primary driver of student performance.  We have observed this in exemplar (value adding) schools and districts. And every year, the value added increases.

Your Lexile questions are valid and real.  Which will always make 3rd grade performance difficult.  But the question within your control is, “Does your district provide multiple years of exemplar instruction?”

At this time, the answer is no. 

The other side of the coin is what happens when a student is exposed to multiple years of below average instruction.  In this case, the student will perform below the level predicted by the wealth of the family.  This would be a value-subtracting situation.  Based on what you inherited, it is possible that this is what has been occurring in your elementary schools.  But it is significantly more noticeable, because your students start significantly behind their state-wide peers.

I do agree with your premise that a community could be significantly below the mean, even greater than one standard deviation. You are just one of multiple districts within 40 miles of you that are in the same boat. This makes it a significant challenge to catch up with an increasing accountability standard. Throw in the fact that you have surrounding vulture districts that cherry pick the most able and ambitious students in your district and you could argue that you are now playing an unwinnable hand (at least in the short-run).  This also highlights how the state is neither the friend of your district (allowing / encouraging student cherry-picking) or your students (not forcing the vulture districts to accept any student from your district).

Now the biggest mistake you are making is trying to make logical sense of the state’s accountability system.  It is a political system, which is its own logic.  The system is designed to:

1. Produce a politically acceptable number of “adequate” campuses and districts.  This proves that our sitting politicians are effective.  

2. Produce a politically acceptable number of “unacceptable” campuses and districts.  This justifies the continued advancement of anti-public school policies.

3. Not upset / alarm affluent parents and neighborhoods.  So, public coffers can continue to be drained, masked by the “wealth of family” effect.

4. Marginalize minority schools.  To make tax subsidies for the affluent (vouchers) look altruistic by “saving” poor kids trapped in “failed” schools.

I’m not tired of fighting the good fight.  I just wish we had more people on our side

Think. Work. Achieve.

Your turn...
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