The Silence of the FCAT and Other Glad Tidings

Is it just me, or has this FCAT season seemed far more muted than in past years?

School scores came out this week. The Ledger did its annual story and score listing and used the same old “mixed bag” quote it’s used for the entirety of the FCAT’s existence. (I say that in solidarity, not criticism. You try to get somebody to sum up a county’s FCAT performance in five words that are fair to all involved. You would retreat to cliche, too. I was Ledger education editor for a number of years. So a few of those “mixed bags” are on me. Better than tea bags, I suppose.)

Everybody’s reaction seems to be: Meh. That thing again.

The first step to undoing the FCAT industrial complex, I think, is to make it boring and mundane and annoying — rather than a terrifying political weapon. Eventually, some politician wanting to shake things up is going to see this massive, bloated bit of pointlessness as a juicy target. Maybe then, we’ll get a more real-time assessment regime that is built into actual daily class time so as to be indistinguishable from class work.

Until that day, fellow parents, here’s a helpful — says me — reminder of how to view your school’s FCAT score and its impact on your self-image. Because, of course, that’s what scoreboard education is all about — parental self-image. Remember the golden rule of scoreboard education: good parents send their kids to schools that throw off marginally higher aggregate test scores than the other schools, where bad parents send their kids. The test scores of our own kids do not matter. Cuz, you know, they’re individuals with circumstances and special needs, etc. It’s those other kids that matter.

1) Did your school score above or below what its student body makeup predicts it will score?

There is an ironclad correlation between the wealth of a school’s student body and the aggregate test scores it throws off. This correlation recurs at all levels I have examined — district, state, etc. See this post.

That means you can predict with reasonable accuracy any school’s aggregate test score based on its wealth profile. Measuring prediction against outcome is the FCAT’s best — and it’s not very good — way of measuring teacher and school performance. What did the instructional staff do with the kids it had? If they outperformed the prediction, I suppose you can say they instructed well.

In my empirical research — admittedly a couple years old now — most wealthy charter and magnet schools underperform their prediction. I’m not running the numbers this year because I don’t have time. But with an Excel sheet and some patience, it’s not that hard to do if you’re really interested.

2) Remember that aggregate scores don’t even matter, per se, in how the state calculates a school’s performance?

Despite the fact that The Ledger — and everybody else — prints aggregate school scores, the scores themselves won’t determine your school’s performance in the eyes of the state. What matters is how many kids score at a certain performance level. There are 5 FCAT levels:

5) Mastery of content
4) Above satisfactory
3) Satisfactory
2) Below satisfactory
1) Inadequate

Schools get evaluated, no matter their student body demographics, based on how many of their kids score Level 3 — Satisfactory. That’s what you slap on your bumper with that “My kid goes to an A-school” sticker. What it really should say is “My kid goes to school where enough kids performed satisfactorily on the FCAT.”

“High achieving” schools become “high achieving” based on how “satisfactory” they are. Congratulations.

To illustrate this, let’s look at two “elite” charter elementary schools here in Polk: Lakeland Montessori, where my son just completed 4th grade, and the McKeels — South and Academy. Here are third grade reading scores. (Third grade is considered an important year. It’s my go-to marker.)

South McKeel — 217
McKeel Academy — 216
LMS — 224

Those aggregate scores all fall in the Level 4 category — Above Satisfactory. As well they should. In all cases, these schools have self-selected student bodies with long waiting lists. In McKeel’s case, they actively and admittedly weed out kids who throw off bad test scores. These student bodies, especially McKeel’s, are designed to throw off high test scores.

And yet, Polk’s County’s overall reading score for all 3rd grade schools is 209 — not all the far behind. That places the county at the very top of Level 3, which ends at 209. The state as a whole is 212, within Level 4. As far as the state’s concerned, they’re all “achieving” at roughly the same “level,” which is “Above Satisfactory.” Just one point away, in Polk’s case.

So why aren’t schools with massive student body advantages and enrollment policies designed to create test scores baselined at Level 4, rather than Level 3? You tell me. And if they were, how would their performance compare to traditional schools?

If I were grading a school with a curated enrollment — and I cared about assessing performance, not creating a bumper sticker — I would set an evaluation baseline at Level 4. Of course, that might mean the elite schools wouldn’t get their annual As. And it would harm the McKeel business model.

That leads us to the third point.

3) If you attend a magnet, charter, or choice school, you should evaluate the “goodness” of your school in comparison with other magnet, charter, and choice schools.

There really is nothing lamer than creating an exclusive, publicly-funded private school system that then turns around and compares itself to the non-private system to whom it sends its problems or kids who choose to leave.

When you start comparing yourself to peers, you can start addressing points like this: At LMS, my kid hasn’t done homework in two years — outside of reading. That’s a school decision, which I totally support. What does that say about the relation of homework to test scores? That’s a real and meaningful educational question, I submit. Much more important and specific than “How good is my school?”

It is utterly silly for McKeel or LMS to compare their scores to Polk County as a whole. If you’re a magnet, charter, choice parent, challenge yourself. If these numbers matter to you in evaluating your child’s educational experience, use them honestly. If they don’t, then why are we doing any of this?

Now let me transition to an olive branch.

A lot has changed for the better in Polk County’s education world since I started my jihad on this stuff back in 2011.

  • The crazy charter war between Lakeland High and Harrison has resolved itself appropriately with no charters and better agreement between the schools.
  • Lincoln Academy’s principal no longer answers to her sister in the Office of Magnet, Charter, and Choice schools.
  • Factional fights between adults over resources and vanity aren’t filling the paper every day.
  • And the architects of the publicly-funded private school complex seem to have taken my advice to just be quiet and do their thing with their waiting lists. I don’t hear much triumphalism and denigration of other schools these days.

I wrote about each of those things pretty extensively. To see them addressed is gratifying.

Without knowing the details of how this happened, I give much credit to the calming influence of both interim superintendent John Stewart and new School Board Member Hunt Berryman. I think I can say, without betraying any confidences, that Berryman is the only school official who ever sought me out to hear my thoughts about education in Polk. We had a nice coffee meeting not long after his election. He listened to me and promised nothing. That’s smart for a politician at any level. But I like what’s happened since; and because I am vain, I choose to believe I may have had some tiny effect over the last couple of years. So, within the bounds of my modest expectations and very limited power, I think I shall declare victory in the fight to adjust the discussion about education in Polk.

Barring any unforeseen circumstances, this will be the last time I’ll go through the unseemly business of using test scores as weapons for my arguments.

Institutional education is a long hard slog. We won’t make any giant leaps — in Polk or anywhere else — until we end the Drug War and mass incarceration (nothing affects parental involvement and family stability, particularly for the non-elite, like drug enforcement) and until all kids go to school year round. Those are the only two educational “game-changers” out there, to use a horrible cliche, in my opinion. And they’ll need to be implemented over years or decades.

I know John Stewart agrees with me on the school year. He said so at my Kiwanis meeting not too long ago. And whether he knows it or not, I think he agrees on the first issue — as should everyone who believes that family involvement is a key to educational success. Drug policy is education policy because it’s also family stability policy.

So moving ahead, when I write about education, that’s where I want to focus. Practical reform, not this Rube Goldberg mass of complexity that is mostly a scam. People at every school at every level can help with that. And I’d much rather be friends than enemies. Really.

One thought on “The Silence of the FCAT and Other Glad Tidings

  1. I volunteer with children, mostly teenage girls. I can’t count the ways that parental incarceration hurts these kids. I know we have to jail people sometimes for protection of the public but it isn’t something we should take as lightly as we do. It shouldn’t be the only tool we have to inhibit inappropriate behavior.

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