Thursday, March 20, 2008

Cooking the education books

The New York Times
March 20, 2008
States’ Data Obscure How Few Finish High School

JACKSON, Miss. — When it comes to high school graduation rates, Mississippi keeps two sets of books.

One team of statisticians working at the state education headquarters here recently calculated the official graduation rate at a respectable 87 percent, which Mississippi reported to Washington. But in another office piled with computer printouts, a second team of number crunchers came up with a different rate: a more sobering 63 percent.

The state schools superintendent, Hank Bounds, says the lower rate is more accurate and uses it in a campaign to combat a dropout crisis.


Like Mississippi, many states use an inflated graduation rate for federal reporting requirements under the No Child Left Behind law and a different one at home. As a result, researchers say, federal figures obscure a dropout epidemic so severe that only about 70 percent of the one million American students who start ninth grade each year graduate four years later.
Sad to say, this isn't remotely surprising. If No Child Left Behind (NCLB) has demonstrated nothing else, it's that educators are cheaters and will use any means to scam the system. If they worked as hard at teaching and complying with NCLB as they do whining about it and finding ways around it, we'd be seeing a lot more progress.

And why does it take two separate teams to compute drop-out rates? Granted they are dealing with large numbers, but this isn't rocket science. Apparently the data they need is in the computer that spit out those piles of printouts. Decide on a formula and have the computer go to work. Computers love doing that kind of stuff. A single first-year programmer could implement this, saving all the tax dollars we're spending on these teams to come up with conflicting results.
California, for example, sends to Washington an official graduation rate of 83 percent but reports an estimated 67 percent on a state Web site. Delaware reported 84 percent to the federal government but publicized four lower rates at home.
I guess Delaware has five different teams working on this and still can't figure it out. Tell me again why we put our children in the hands of these people?
The multiple rates have many causes. Some states have long obscured their real numbers to avoid embarrassment. Others have only recently developed data-tracking systems that allow them to follow dropouts accurately.
This is education malpractice, pure and simple. "Obscuring the real numbers" is a dishonest way of saying lying. When a business does this, people go to jail. When our school system does this, people keep their jobs and we sit around scratching our heads about why things aren't improving despite throwing massive amounts of money at the problem.
The No Child law is also at fault. The law set ambitious goals, enforced through sanctions, to make every student proficient in math and reading. But it established no national school completion goals.
Note the highlighted portion. It will come up again later. For now, suffice it to say that an education law as comprehensive as NCLB should be tracking drop-out rates, although this still doesn't excuse the states from lying about their drop-out statistics. Blaming NCLB is pure deflection from the problem of corruption at the state level.
Furthermore, although the law requires schools to make only minimal annual improvements in their rates, reporting lower rates to Washington could nevertheless cause more high schools to be labeled failing — a disincentive for accurate reporting.
A little confusing. Apparently, NCLB didn't establish national goals but does require states to report and improve drop-out rates, which sounds like a good thing.

This sounds similar to the way NCLB handles test scores. Rather than imposing national goals that must be met each year, each state is responsible for defining its own yearly goals. This allows states to game the system, and many have, by setting extremely modest definitions of Adequate Yearly Progress.

The difference here is that ,while student achievement is measured through tests administered by a third-party, the reporting of drop-out rates is built on the honor system, where those who are being monitored (the educators) are trusted to report their progress accurately. Sadly, it turns out that they aren't very honorable.
With Congressional efforts to rewrite the law stalled, Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings has begun using her executive powers to correct the weaknesses in it. Ms. Spellings’s efforts started Tuesday with a measure aimed at focusing resources on the nation’s worst schools. Graduation rates are also on her agenda.
Two things here. First, why is this being addressed so late in the game? NCLB has been law since January, 2002. This is just more evidence that the government, especially the national government, should have as little to do with educating our children as possible.

Second, Spellings intends to direct additional resources to the nation's worst schools. Whether this is the best approach or not (I think not), it is in direct contradiction to the spirit of NCLB, which notably broke from the failed throw-money-at-the-problem approach that we took for decades. NCLB introduced a new approach where additional resources are awarded only as long as schools continue to improve student achievement.
In an interview, Ms. Spellings said she might require states to calculate their graduation rate according to one federal formula.

“I’m considering settling this once and for all,” she said, “by defining a single federal graduation rate and requesting states to report it that way. That would finally put this issue to rest.”
Now this I don't get. She might require states to use such a formula? Why the ambivalence? If the problem is as bad as reported, providing a clear cut definition of exactly what we are tracking should be a slam dunk.

More importantly, Spellings is wrong in concluding that a federal definition of graduation rate would put the issue to rest. While creating a standardized formula is a fine idea, it won't force schools to stop lying about their drop-out rates. As long as schools are in charge of policing themselves, there is nothing to prevent them from continuing to keep two sets of books and report inflated graduation rates to Washington. The "disincentive for accurate reporting," as the article puts it, remains.
In 2001, the year the law was drafted, one of the first of a string of revisionist studies argued that the nation’s schools were losing more students than previously thought.


Still, Congress did not make dropouts a central focus of the law. And when states negotiated their plans to carry it out, the Bush administration allowed them to use dozens of different ways to report graduation rates.
Again, why did it take seven years to address a known issue?
As an example, New Mexico defined its rate as the percentage of enrolled 12th graders who received a diploma. That method grossly undercounts dropouts by ignoring all students who leave before the 12th grade.
So they only count the number of kids that drop out during their senior year; all those that drop out before that are ignored. Thus, they are not technically lying. But reporting a meaningless number to misrepresent their actual performance is blatantly dishonest. It violates the public trust and betrays the very children these schools were created to serve. The people behind these tactics should be fired and banned from the profession.
The law also allowed states to establish their own goals for improving graduation rates. Many set them low. Nevada, for instance, pledged to get just 50 percent of its students to graduate on time. And since the law required no annual measures of progress, California proposed that even a one-tenth of 1 percent annual improvement in its graduation rate should suffice.
Again, educational malpractice. These people should be consumed with improving our dismal school system. Instead, they devote their time and energy toward exploiting legal loopholes to give the appearance of progress where none is being made.
Daniel J. Losen, who has studied dropout reporting for the Civil Rights Project at the University of California, Los Angeles, said he once pointed out to a [California] state official that, at that pace, it would take California 500 years to meet its graduation goal.

“In California, we’re patient,” Mr. Losen recalled the official saying.
Disgusting. Absolutely disgusting.
Most troublesome to some experts was the way the No Child law’s mandate to bring students to proficiency on tests, coupled with its lack of a requirement that they graduate, created a perverse incentive to push students to drop out. If low-achieving students leave school early, a school’s performance can rise.

No study has documented that the law has produced such an effect nationwide. Experts say they believe many low-scoring students are prodded to leave school, often by school officials urging them to seek an equivalency certificate known as a General Educational Development diploma.
NCLB needs to be amended to fix this, but again, blaming this on NCLB is absurd. The low-life scum that are sacrificing our kids so that they can appear to be doing their jobs must be identified and punished. Unfortunately, this brand of child abuse will remain as long as our schools are government run and under the thumbs of the teachers unions, which block any type of meaningful education reforms.

For more examples of the scams being played, read the whole article. I don't have the stomach to continue.

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