Saturday, September 16, 2017

Same With the State Report Card.

The Ohio State Report Cards were released this week, so as a teacher in an urban district, I've been splitting my time between rage and despondency. I've also been fighting a cold while trying to motivate, educate, and entertain about 150 10th grade American History students who attend a school that received a few F's, a D, and a lone C in Graduation Rate. Needless to say, this is not the assessment of my building that I would levy, and I don't think that my students or their parents, even on a bad day, would give us marks that low.

But the state is another story, as they have no issue doling out notifications of failure. Sure there are disclaimers, like this one on the Report Card page, "Report Cards are only one part of the story of what is happening in a district or school. To get a fuller picture, visit schools, talk to teachers, administrators, parents and students..." 

State Superintendent Paolo DeMaria has also continued his tour of relentless positivity pointing out, "Having set high expectations for what our students must know and be able to do, our children and schools are stepping up to the challenge. We’re seeing increases in achievement across the state. I continue to be impressed with the dedication of Ohio’s educators and our students’ desire to learn more and more.”

The problem, even if there are widespread increases in achievement on these tests (and I'm not sure that's true), is that no one is listening to the Superintendent, and no one is visiting schools. Most people are not even visiting the state website. The only piece the average citizen is interested in is the annual Performance Index ranking of school districts published in the paper.

With the exception of a majority of the Ohio Legislature and anyone currently employed by the Ohio Department of Education, anyone who's done any rudimentary research into what it is that standardized tests really measure (and in turn the district rankings) will tell you that it's a measure of economics. So, when news outlets echo the state's rhetoric and explain that the state changed the testing system "in an effort to demand higher performance from students," it is complete bullshit. When they add that students arrive at college unprepared for college work, they're off target because everyone worth their salt in education knows that assessments are not a good predictor of college success. GPA is the best predictor of college success. Standardized assessments are best at identifying socioeconomic status, which is information we could gain from the IRS without hundreds of hours of test prep and testing.

If you don't believe me, then check out the information below which examines Ohio's state report card ranking by Performance Index, as it relates to median income, average income, and relative poverty in a given district. The first image is the top 30 schools, and the second is the bottom 30 schools.

The differences top to bottom are stark, from a district with zero poverty in the top 30, to districts with 100 percent poverty in the bottom 30. The averages are, perhaps, even more telling. Top 30 average median income: $54,211, average poverty: 8%. Bottom 30 average median  income: $25,131, average poverty: 87%. 

The average household income for districts in the top 30 PI ranking is $119,429. The average household income for those in the bottom 30 is $36,668. This is what our state assessments measure.

This is not new. Sure the incomes and poverty levels may fluctuate, school districts may swap spots. You might even catch a high poverty district move up, or a low poverty district drop in the rankings, but the correlation is there, year after year.

What really makes me lose sleep is the fact that we tie high stakes decisions to a system that essentially measures income. I'm not getting too attached to that C my school earned in Graduation Rate. The state proficiency rate in Algebra is 56.2%, in Geometry 49.7%, ELA II 63.3%. Sure those percentages may be higher statewide than last year, but that's 40-50% of students not on pace to graduate statewide based on those subjects alone. If we consider the nature of averages, combined with the information on poverty and standardized tests, then what are the percentages of students who will not graduate in those bottom 30 districts? What's the percentage in my own district? Whatever it is, it is too high, and without good enough reason.

So, if the majority of students prevented from earning a diploma, or from moving up to 4th grade, are from districts with high rates of poverty, then aren't we punishing many of these kids just for their economic condition. And if retention leads to dropout, and a lack of diploma leads to a significantly lower income, then aren't we exacerbating an oppressive system?

I believe we are, and no amount of relentless positivity from Superintendent DeMaria, or teacher celebrating disclaimers from the ODE are going to change that. We have known the limitations of an evaluation system based on standardized tests for a generation or more. It is time for it to end.

If the state really wants to "increase achievement" and "close gaps" and assure that kids are "college and career ready," then what we need is a legitimate attempt to at least remediate the effects of poverty on children's lives, or move toward the eradication of childhood poverty altogether.

Postscript: Tanner Boyle

Report Card week has also gotten me thinking a lot about my favorite baseball movie, The Bad News Bears. Since I was a kid, the 1976 film has drawn me in. While I was never on board with the film's casual racism, the casual profanity spoke to me almost as much as the story of of an underdog team of immigrants, minorities, and poor kids fighting against the odds, against teams who'd had every advantage, economic and otherwise. I grew up in the city where I teach, and watched working class people with no advantage battle against the odds for something better, and rarely win. It's still like that here in many ways. That's why I stayed, to help people fight for something better. That's why the film appeals to me. The Bears work hard, win their way into the championship, and lose in the end. This is life for many people.

So, this week when Superintendent DeMaria was congratulating us for trying hard, and the district rankings list was retweeted thousands of times, I was thinking about the last scene in the film. The rich kids have won again, and the poor slobs, the Bears, have suffered through a forced apology and "2 - 4 - 6 - 8 who do we appreciate," when foul mouthed Tanner Boyle steps up and says, "Hey can take your apology and your trophy and shove 'em straight up your ass."

Same with the state report card.