Sunday, February 22, 2009

The Accountability Illusion

As much as I'd like to take credit for this week's blog post title, I can't. It's the name of a newly-released study that looks at the No Child Left Behind Act - and specifically the act's rules for classifying schools as making 'Adequate Yearly Progress.'

In a nutshell, the idea that school performance across the country is being measured by a set standard is - well, laughable. Apparently children may not be 'left behind' in Arizona, but those same kids would certainly be eating dust in many other states.

The study was conducted by the
Thomas B. Fordham Institute in Washington D.C. - a non-profit think tank aimed at improving America's schools. Analysts took 36 real schools and measured each by the NCLB standards of 28 states, finding that adequate progress ratings have just as much - if not more - to do with geography than actual performance.

"This report’s crucial finding is that – contrary to what the average American likely believes – there is no common, nationwide accountability system for measuring school performance under NCLB. The AYP system is idiosyncratic, even random and opaque," said Chester E. Finn, Jr., President of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute. "Without a common standard to help determine whether a given school is successful or not, its fate under NCLB is determined by a set of arcane rules created by each state."

The Accountability Illusion: An interview with Checkerfrom Education Gadfly on Vimeo.

Arizona is especially lax when it comes to measuring school progrees. Only one other state in the study - Wisconsin - classified more of the 36 sample schools as making adequate yearly progress. Here are some key findings from the Arizona report:
  • 3 of 18 elementary schools and 10 of 18 middle schools in the sample failed to make AYP in 2008 under Arizona’s accountability system. Among the 28 accountability systems examined in the study, there's only one state where more schools make AYP than in Arizona (Wisconsin).This makes The Grand Canyon State one of the least restrictive in terms of AYP passage rates.
  • Several sample schools made AYP in Arizona that failed to make AYP in most other states. This is probably because Arizona’s proficiency standards are relatively easy compared to other states (especially in reading). Another reason is that Arizona’s definitions for subgroups are grade-based rather than school based, resulting in fewer accountable subgroups (i.e., a school must have at least 40 individuals within a grade for that group to be evaluated). Arizona also uses a very generous confidence interval (or margin of error).
  • Nearly all of the schools in the sample that failed to make AYP in Arizona are meeting expected targets for their overall populations, but failing because of the performance of individual subgroups—particularly students with disabilities at the middle school level.

Number of sampled schools that made AYP in 2008, by state

Friday, February 13, 2009

For the Love of Reading

Just one of many cute books found on - a site that allows you to read children's books before buying them.

The second week of February is all about love. That life-enriching, forever kind of love. The kind that makes you brighter, more successful and always leaves your heart completely intact.

For 27 years, Tucson Unified School District has dubbed this time of year Love of Reading Week . It's become a national celebration, with the aim of instilling literature appreciation in students and rekindling it in adults.

Every year during this week, I take a trip to Ms. North's 3rd grade class at Manzo Elementary School. If you've never read to a room full of kids, you should definitely get around to it. They listen so hard, you can almost feel them hanging on your words. Hear what one child psychologist has to say about the benefits of reading aloud:

Not surprisingly, the more time children spend reading and being read to, the higher their reading achievement. And that achievement means much more than a stellar report card - statistically speaking, it's the key to high school graduation, college attendance and ultimately a decent-paying job.

Research shows that fourth grade is a particularly important year. Two thirds of students who cannot read proficiently by fourth grade will end up in jail or on welfare, according to nationally acclaimed reading specialist Louisa Moats.

That knowledge makes the following statistics even more depressing. The latest test results from the National Assessment of Educational Progress shows that 44 percent of Arizona's fourth graders are below the basic reading level. It gets worse.

Minority and low-income students are faring far worse compared to their white peers.

  • In 2007, Black students had an average score that was lower than that of White students by 17 points. In 1992, the average score for Black students was lower than that of White students by 22 points.
  • In 2007, Hispanic students had an average score that was lower than that of White students by 27 points. In 1992, the average score for Hispanic students was lower than that of White students by 23 points.
  • In 2007, students who were eligible for free/reduced-price school lunch, a proxy for poverty, had an average score that was lower than that of students who were not eligible for free/reduced-price school lunch by 29 points. In 1998, the average score for students who were eligible for free/reduced-price school lunch was lower than the score of those not eligible by 32 points.

As simplistic as it sounds, the fight against hunger, poverty, crime, sickness and welfare dependency should start with Dr. Seuss.

Sunday, February 8, 2009

First Grade Fun

As someone who likes to avoid awkward situations, I'm not a fan of hugging total strangers. But, when the strangers are all six-year-olds, my personal bubble disappates - a good thing considering the first graders I met Friday seemed to possess no bubbles of their own.

While observing Ms. Salazar's class at Sahuarita Primary School, I received approximately 36 hugs, 1 pinecone, 1 piece of broken plastic, 1 flower and held 1 million hands (more or less). First graders are apparently still in the adult-loving stage. They are also constantly moving, rarely quiet and generally have no sense of independence. All of those cute (though occasionally annoying) characteristics pre-kindergarten - first grade teachers must deal with lead many people to assume those teachers are more like glorified babysitters. That assumption is rather stupid, according to me, and completely misguided, according to a study published in Developmental Pschology.

How much children know early on is the single most important factor
in predicting academic achievement in high school, the study says.
A mastery of basic math and reading concepts heading into kindergarten sets a kid up to succeed in the future - regardless of any emotional or social problems the child might have. The disruptive, aggressive kids learn as much as the well-behaved ones, provided they both start school with academic skills. Math skills are especially important - knowing what numbers are and the order they go in predicts future math and reading achievement. It doesn't work the other way - reading skills apparently don't predict math success.

Based on those findings, it seems teachers charged with educating the youngest students may have the most influence over their future success. Another study says the learning rate of first graders is 10 times that of high school students. So, for the kids who come into kindergarten or first grade without the skills they need, a teacher capable of catching them up right then may be their ticket to the high school honor roll. Sounds a little tougher than babysitting.

Sunday, February 1, 2009

Retention and CHSA: like PB&J

Create Your Own
Students and staff livin' it up at the Chicano/Hispano Student Affairs Center

For every 100 Chicanos that enter kindergarten, only six will wind up with bachelor's degrees, according to Sean Arce, director of TUSD's Raza Studies.

That represents a national college graduation rate of about 55 percent for Hispanic students. A dismal statistic - and one the University of Arizona Hispanic Alumni are blowing out of the water. For every 100 students that go through the UAHA retention program, about 90 will receive a bachelor's degree, said UAHA President Humberto Stevens.

But, the retention program could suffer next semester if the plan to separate it from Chicano/Hispano Student Affairs goes through. With the state facing what can safely be called a budget crisis, the Legislature is calling on all Arizona universities to slash their own budgets - with the UA's share totaling more than $100 million. And while that massive figure is somewhat new, the UA has been struggling to cope with its upcoming poverty for months. The 'transformation plan' was launched last semester as a way to get all departments and colleges thinking of innovative ways to cut jobs, programs, entire departments - and ultimately costs.

The Multicultural Affairs and Student Success department couldn't escape transforming - which means potentially big changes for the Chicano/Hispano, African American, Asian Pacific American and Native American Student Affairs centers.

As it stands, the committee charged with deciding the future of the UA's various student affairs centers is operating separately from the one charged with the future of UA retention programs. That could spell trouble for Hispanic retention students, since the program is practically inseparable from the CHSA center. CHSA staff teach the class all incoming freshmen are required to take, and the center's events are designed to make students feel connected - to the university and each to other.

A retention program operating separately from the cultural center is worrisome, said Patsy Klein, who instructs senior retention students during monthly UAHA meetings. She attened a Focus Group Jan. 28 - one of several put on by the cultural center transformation committee - where students were asked to voice their concerns and suggestions about the potential combination of all centers. Listen to what she had to say: