October (2016) newsletter

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October Newsletter
What do you want in your kids’ school lunches? Tell DCPS.

As DCPS gets ready to put out a request for proposal for a new school lunch vendor, it’s inviting input. Make your views known by completing a survey at engagedcps.org.

DC announces results from PARCC high school assessments. Scores are a wake-up call.

The results of the PARCC test for high school students (mainly 10th-graders) yesterday were announced yesterday. The scores show that 25% of the city’s high school students have met or exceeded expectations in English Language Arts (“met”=score of 4; “exceeded” =score of 5) and 10% have met or exceeded expectations in math. Another 17% in ELA and 24% in math “approached expectations.”
The ELA scores were much higher at School without Walls (97%); Banneker (74%); Wilson (50% met or exceeded); Ellington (50%); and McKinley (30%).
The scores are a reminder of how incredibly far we have to go to strengthen education across the city. But: It’s important to know that these scores, however low they might be, are not comparable to scores on DC’s previous test, the DC-CAS.

–PARCC scores measure “college-career readiness,” which DC-CAS never did.
Before PARCC, each state and DC wrote its own test and set its own “proficiency” threshold. And, in many cases, states set the thresholds at very low levels, resulting in (surprise!!) very high pass rates that were then hailed by education and political leaders. But, these same students often had to take remedial courses when they went off to college and career training programs, as their “proficient” reading and math levels were significantly below the minimums needed for post-secondary success. Many commentators have called this the Honesty Gap, arguing that, in effect, states weren’t being honest about what their students had achieved.

–With PARCC, the “meets expectations” level was defined in consultation with post-secondary institutions.

Specifically, the “meets expectations” level should reflect a roughly 75% chance that students will earn at least C’s in entry-level post-secondary courses.
As I reported in my last newsletter, I attended the PARCC standard-setting meeting for 7/8th grade last summer. I was very impressed with the professionalism and expertise with which the levels were set. PARCC will be conducting research to further determine if the thresholds ar set in the right place. Meanwhile, I feel pretty comfortable that with PARCC, students who “meets expectations” are on-track to success in their post-secondary schooling, whether college or career preparation.

–PARCC scores do not tell us whether achievement has gone up or down.
In short: if parents, kids, teachers, or others are distressed by any low scores, please keep this in mind: Whether low or not, these scores do not tell us whether DC achievement has gone up or down. They do not tell us whether the achievement of any given student has gone up or down. They do not tell us that teachers or schools have done a better or worse job. But, these scores do give both parents and policymakers a more accurate picture of whether students are on track for college.

–PARCC Scores for grades 3-8 will be released in November. Students will get score reports in their backpacks in December.
Citywide scores for grades 3-8 will be announced in November. Individual student scores will be sent home in December. Also in December, principals will get score reports for their schools, and teachers will get score reports for their current students and for the students that they taught the previous year. In the future, PARCC scores will be reported soon after the test is taken.

–National reading/math scores disappointing. DC improvement defies averages!

Lots of data this week! In addition to the PARCC scores, the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), considered the “gold-standard” in tracking student achievement, reported its biennial reading and math scores.
According to this report, national average scores in both subjects in both 4th and 8th grades were down or stagnant, which hasn’t been true in many years. But DC defied the national trend, with 4th grade scores rising citywide in both reading (7) and math (3), with the increases in DCPS being even a point higher! With these gains, DC scores are inching up closer and closer to the national average. Data hounds can see more here.

–The continuing problem of over-testing and curriculum narrowing gets national attention– and possibly federal support for a reduction.

The PARCC test should have one purpose—to provide an honest picture of student achievement to stakeholders. As such, it is meant to be a once-a-year test. Starting next spring, the test will require less than ten hours of each student’s time.

But schools and school districts across the country for various reasons have mandated many additional tests—interim tests, unit tests, benchmark tests, and more. When I was running for the DC State School Board it was one of the issues that I heard the most about. I continue to get a steady stream of complaints from parents and teachers.

Yesterday the Council of Great City Schools (which represents the big-city school districts) issued a report documenting the national testing explosion. It found that the average student in the US now takes 112 standardized tests during her k-12 career. Totally crazy!!!!!
The report has caught the attention of the Obama administration, which has responded with a promise that the federal Education Department will help school districts and state education departments inventory and reform their testing programs.

Last spring, the DC State Board of Education (in its approval of a waiver of the No Child Left Behind Act) asked DC’s state superintendent to conduct an audit of student testing and curriculum narrowing. It looks like now, if the city chose to conduct such a study, we could get federal support for such an effort!

State Diploma for GED discussed by State Board. Employers and Educators Testify. Vote in 1 month.

Should recipients of the GED and NEDP (National External Diploma Program) high school equivalency certificates receive a DC State Diploma? The State Board heard testimony on this in July and again in October. We have now heard formal testimony from employers, providers of GED preparation (mainly adult charter schools), and representatives of DC’s secondary school stakeholders. In addition, I have visited several schools, including Academy of Hope Charter, Next Step Charter, and Ballou Stay that prepare students for high school equivalency certificates.

I have discovered that DC has one of the liveliest adult education sectors in the country. The schools that I visited are educating an incredible variety of adults—including immigrants who were never educated in US schools and adults who dropped out decades ago for reasons as diverse as needing to work, drugs, family issues, failing school, etc. –and providing them with a needed second chance to get an education and decent, stable employment. These schools also provide a second chance for younger individuals who more recently left high schools because it didn’t provide what they needed. I think especially of one young person who testified that she had left high school because she was bullied.

The students who ultimately earn their GED certificates in these programs will have, according to these school leaders, typically spent 18 months or more in preparation. In some cases, these adults are attending school on a daily basis; in other cases, it’s at night, over a longer period, as they juggle schools, jobs, kids, and the rest of life.

The newly re-normed GED test is rigorous
Last year, the GED revised and re-normed its test (as it periodically does). This is not an easy test: Its passing threshold is set at the point at which roughly 40% of current high school graduates would not pass it. And, yet, according to testimony, those who earn the certificate still believe that they are stigmatized in the job market. They have testified that with a high school diploma in hand along with their certificate, they believe that stigmatization would be much reduced. Further, they argued that regardless of whether employers looked more kindly on their applications, having a diploma would increase their own self-esteem and self-confidence with its own positive results.
(The State Board has not yet received norming or grade-level information on the NEDP or other information that rigorously compares the NEDP to DC state standards.)

Providing high school diplomas to adult students who have earned a GED seems wholly appropriate and deserved. It is a needed, deserved second chance. To help assure that recipients are not stigmatized by employers, the city should run a serious PR campaign informing employers of the GED’s rigor.

But let’s not incentivize current students and teens to drop out of high school!
I’m concerned, though, with one unintended consequence of this otherwise important policy change: What will the effect be on current high school students and teens, especially those who are marginally connected to high school, possibly on the cusp of dropping out. If they know they can walk out of high school the day they turn 18, take a GED exam, and get a diploma… might that tilt them towards dropping out?

The evidence suggests it could. A 2004 survey of young people who had recently dropped out conducted by the very respected National Educational Longitudinal Study, found that 40.5% of high school dropouts said one of their reasons (they could give multiple reasons) for leaving school was that they “thought it would be easier to get a GED.”

This was the second most frequently given reason. The top reason was “missed too many school days”—43.5%; in contrast, for comparison, 15.5% said that a reason was “Had to care for a member of family.”
Now, of course, the GED probably didn’t turn out to be as easy as these students thought. The research doesn’t tell us how many of them ended up as GED recipients–or dropouts with no certificate. My guess is a fair number ended up with neither.

Also, Nobel-award winning economist James Heckman–whose research documenting the huge pay-off of investments in early childhood education has fueled large investments in early childhood education (including here in DC)–has conducted research in this area. His research suggests that changes in the GED have a substantial effect on graduation rates. (It’s dense, but if you’re interested, here’s his paper.) Earlier this month, the city was rightly crowing about having increased the city’s grad rate by 4 points over several years! It would be terrible to thoughtlessly put into a place a policy that might undo these hard-won gains!

Lets have our cake and eat it too! Let’s add “guard rails”
I favor awarding a state diploma to adults who earn GED’s. But as we drop barriers to a diploma for adults, I would like the policy to build in “guard rails” that minimize the likelihood that it could lead to an increase in dropouts.
For example:

Raise the minimum age for earning a diploma so that you can’t walk out of school as soon as you turn 18 to take the GED and earn a diploma;
Don’t allow the city or schools to count GED recipients in their graduation statistics (Currently federal rules prevent this but, as noted in this Washington Post op-ed, this rule could be repealed along with other changes to the federal No Child Left Behind law.);
If the GED (a profit-making company that may be under pressure to make the test easier to pass) lowers its passing standard, DC shouldn’t award diplomas for these lower scores; according to Heckman’s research, high school grad rates seem to go down when passing the GED gets easier.
Let’s closely track the results of the policy, assuring ourselves that it’s leading to greater success for recipients of the state diplomas AND not incentivizing students to leave school. Given the high stakes, we should take a look sooner rather than later, maybe after two years. If the results are problematic, the policy should undergo an immediate review.
Wilson’s budget battle: In the end, the per-student budget isn’t reduced as expected…. Because 70+ out-of bounds students were dis-enrolled.

For those of you who have followed this, you know that Wilson’s enrollment was projected to substantially increase this fall, and an inadequate DCPS-proposed budget for the school would have left the school with a 10% per student funding decrease. Ultimately, after much community activism, a budget increase from Councilman David Grosso’s education committee, and great work by Councilwoman Mary Cheh and Council Chairman Phil Mendelson, DCPS restored close to 50% of the cut funds, the amount the community had asked for.

All the while, DCPS claimed that in the end, Wilson wouldn’t really suffer from a per-student cut because, according to DCPS, Wilson’s enrollment wouldn’t really go up by the amount projected. In fact, DCPS used an existing rule to reduce Wilson’s enrollment by pushing out out-of-bounds students with substantial absences. Sadly, DCPS refused to reenroll at Wilson some 70 students who live out of Wilson’s geographic boundaries but who (largely) have attended Wilson feeder schools and gone to school with feeder school students since elementary school.

I think schools probably should have greater discretion to un-enroll students who are continually disruptive or absent (as charter schools are more able to do) if other efforts to support them fail, in order to maintain a strong learning environment for all students. But, rules have to be applied equally to all students.

A policy in which some students (based on zip code) can be expelled for certain behaviors and other students can do what they want is terribly unfair and an entirely wrong message to send to all of our students.

Wilson is on a trajectory to get more crowded. BUT DCPS needs to address Wilson’s overcrowding deliberately and thoughtfully–not with what seem to be unfair, ad hoc policies.

That’s all for now.
Happy Halloween!

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