McDump Academy and the FCAT New Math

hard math

Regular School – .2(Regular School) + Special School > Charter School +/- Null Set

Or something. This is the bizarre mathematical phrase we’ve come to in assessing the performance of Polk County schools.

As considered in the ridiculous way we measure schools in this state, Lakeland High and Bartow High are the clear champions of all “normal” high schools in Polk County. LHS tests slightly better in 9th grade, BHS slightly better in 10th. Both trail the McDump Academy and whatever remnants of its student body it allows to take the FCAT.

That makes it seem rather odd that some number of Harrison parents so fear the academics at Lakeland High that they want to bail on that faculty, right? After all, LHS is one of the statistically elite high schools in Polk County. Compare it to the charter model for Lake Wales High, for instance, where free market excellence, local control, and charter magic are in full effect. Lakeland and Bartow High both do significantly better in FCAT world than the Lake Wales charter district’s high school.

I’m sure the realtors–if there are any left–will be out selling the LHS school district in the same way they used to sell the George Jenkins school district when we were looking for a house back in 1999. It didn’t take too long to figure out that “Jenkins district” equalled “comparatively wealthy Republicans”. Which raises a question, how is it that all your lovingly polished Jenkins kids can’t quite match the performance of those LHS ruffians? Ponder.

Remember this line from commenter seastraight last week: Billy, Billy, Billy. Get off of the traditional public school band wagon and look at the good results of charter schools. Well, seastraight, how you like them apples?

And yet, as much as I like rubbing his ignorance in seastraight’s face, I can’t really do it in good conscience in any of this. Instead, I’ll ask the class to explore with me why this bit of smack talk has no merit–for Jenkins or LWHS or any of these schools. Let us apply our analytical thinking and statistical skills–I learned them in public schools and home, by the way–to Lakeland High’s experience.

This Ledger story from last year story documents how LHS’s reading scores improved substantially, by 11 points, in the five years leading up to this year’s test, exceeding both its strategic plan goal and the state average.

As the story goes on to note, LHS’ student makeup changed significantly during that time. It added the 400 students of Harrison, whom LHS teachers always taught, to its official testing tally while sending another 400 students to the new Teneroc High School. Adding 400 self-selected kids from all over the county and subtracting 400 kids chosen from the general population of a specific school. That’s reconstituting about 20 percent of LHS’ FCAT enrollment in a way that was statistically guaranteed to increase mean test scores. And LHS improved two school grades, from B to D. Achievement at work.

With that having happened, LHS is now in virtual dead heat with Bartow High, which also includes the famously achieving IB program. IB is smaller than Harrison, but it also chooses kids based specifically on academics, as opposed to artistic audition. So let us call their effects on their schools a wash, which they appear to be.

Compare that with McKeel Academy, which has an entirely self-selected enrollment, from which it liberally whittles the kids it doesn’t want. As we’ve seen, McKeel Academy dropped, eerrr saw transfer, 12 percent of its enrollment in the 2009-2010 school year. Those departures had much higher free and reduced lunch percentage than the enrollment average. We can assume they were the bottom of McKeel’s testing barrel, as McKeel perceived it. That’s why they got dumped. Add those kids back in, and do you really think McKeel holds on to its lead over LHS and Bartow High?

And if you really want to see how this works, check out Lake Wales High, which made the terrible mistake of going to charter status with nowhere to dump kids and no special population from which to draw. I say that facetiously. [Full disclosure, my cousin, Robin Gibson, one of the most competent and successful human beings one will ever meet, is arguably the driving force behind the LW charter system. He’s the chair of the LWC Foundation.] In truth, I have always admired the Lake Wales District organizers for doing what McKeel won’t–applying charter status to all of Lake Wales’ kids. They begged the middle school to switch for years before finally building their own.

One of the really telling, and disgusting, things about the McDump model is that its board and director do not want to apply that model to all of Polk’s students. I could respect that, a little. But no, it’s quite the contrary. They are educational predators. To be McDump, McDump must have a traditional district–measured by the same system–into which it can dump its testing undesirables and then slag off on them as part of its status-obsessed marketing so the snooty little lawyers’ kids will get sent there.

That’s awfully honorable, isn’t it?

There is no bigger fan of the traditional school district than McKeel. It doesn’t actually care about any of the kids or teachers there, but it needs them desperately to keep Harold Maready paid. Honestly Seth, if my name was on this model, and I cared a whit about that name, I’d do something about this. Unless, of course, you think looking down your nose at 95 percent of the community and their kids is a sound political tactic.

It’s also telling that the big story recently about Lake Wales High and its new principal focused less on teaching the kids already at Lake Wales High than on recruiting kids that might otherwise go to Harrison or Bartow IB. That’s completely understandable, both from the point-of-view of the school and the community trying to keep its talented/leadership/elite kids in the community. Don’t hate the player; hate the game.

But really, does this bear much on the quality of education–as defined by the interaction between student and teacher–that occurs within that school’s walls?

And finally, obsessing over FCAT scores, in and of themselves, is pretty odd. You, dear reader, have no more idea than I what the hell a 311 mean score on the Reading FCAT actually means. And yet, we dutifully report those numbers as if they told anybody anything. I essentially ignore the numeric scores–and look instead for general trends and relative scores among schools and try to extrapolate from there.

This year, I noticed a broad drop in scores occurring in surprisingly uniform percentages. My immediate response: well, they must have changed the test somehow. I didn’t have time to go empirically assess that theory, but I was pretty sure. And, lo and behold:

Florida’s statewide assessments are currently undergoing a transition from FCAT to a new FCAT 2.0 and Florida End-of-Course Assessments. The new tests are based on Florida’s updated, more rigorous curriculum standards that were adopted by the State Board of Education several years ago, according to state DOE Commissioner Eric Smith.

Wilma Ferrer, senior director of assessment, accountability and evaluation for the Polk County School District, said Monday that usually when you change standards and give a harder test, scores drop for some students and schools.

While the content is different, the scale to calculate the results is the same as last year. However, in the fall that scale will change. State education officials said they needed a full year of results to determine how to come up with the new scale.

See, none of this crap tells you anything. It’s just a baseline so they can cheat, errr, adjust next year to make the scores move in whatever direction the combination of ruling politics, bureaucracy, and economic interest want them to go. It was always thus. The moment advocates of egalitarian public education allowed the testing trojan horse into their shining city, they guaranteed a relentless attack on it from within.

In the real world, not the gauzy imaginations of liberal “reformers” like Barack Obama who have made foolish alliances with bad people, the testing regime exists only as endless bludgeon to be used against the institution of public education. Ever ask yourself why overwhelmingly conservative policemen and agencies are never subjected to a public numerical rating? Conservatives know how to protect the institutions they perceive as loyal to them.

It’s a good thing for my sanity that I carry an exceptionally dark view of society and human nature across history. It allows me to suffer mostly pleasant surprises from the actions of humans and their institutions. We’ve always been awful; and we’re not really getting worse if you step back and look at humans as a species. After all, we killed violently something like 100 million of us between 1914 and 1945. But I will say that I’m not getting many pleasant surprises these days, which makes this an unusually good time to be a happy fatalist.

Creative Commons License image credit: Casey Hussein Bisson