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Analysis of the state’s recent LEAP and iLEAP test results lack specifics, critics say

9th June 2014   ·   0 Comments

By Kari Dequine Harden
Contributing Writer

While not always a source for scandal and controversy, the release of the 2014 LEAP and iLEAP scores created quite a stir for those who follow the Louisiana Department of Education’s (LDOE) obsessive track?ing of standardized test scores as a measure of a child’s worth, a teacher’s worth, and a school’s success.

The clamor began when State Superintendent John White did not release the public data on the promised date of May 16.

On May 17, blogger Tom Aswell wrote, “Now comes word from within the department that LDOE employees have balked at White’s demands to tweak the results for the Recovery School District (RSD) and this little development has thrown a wrinkle into the scheduled release of the test scores.”

In addition to his “Louisiana Voice” blog, Aswell covers state politics as the head of Capitol News Service.

Aswell continued: “We have no way of knowing at this point whether or not the reports are true but when the test scores were not forthcoming as promised at 9 a.m. Friday, that certainly did not help White’s credibility.”

On May 22, blogger and former LDOE employee Jason France wrote:

“My investigation confirmed that John White has all the reports and numbers run more than a week before the scheduled release date. However there was one thing he still wanted LDOE staff to do. He wanted them to get more directly involved in improving student test scores — than I thought they had been in the past. He wanted them to manually alter the test scores to make charters and RSD look good and traditional public schools look bad.”

France, who operates the “Crazy Crawfish” blog and is running for a seat on the Board of Elementary and Secondary Education (BESE), then urged the employees who allegedly reported that they had been asked to alter scores to blow the whistle publicly. “What they were asked to do was criminal and by refusing to come forward they are endangering the lives of children and families and aiding in the misallocation of state and federal funds,” France wrote. “Knowledge of serious crimes and failure to report it to authorities is in and of itself a criminal act.”

But once White released the scores on May 20, the headline was rather lackluster.

“Results steady on transitional LEAP and iLEAP tests,” the LDOE press release announced.

But rather than release any hard data, White grouped and layered the scores into the “Percentage of students meeting 2025 target increases.”

According to the LDOE’s statewide: “In English Language Arts, 27 percent of students performed at the mastery level or higher, compared to 26 percent in 2013. For math, 25 percent of students scored at mastery or higher on this year’s assessments fully aligned to new academic expectations, a two-point increase from 23 percent in 2013. Overall, 69 percent of students achieved “basic” results or better, the same percentage as in 2013.”

For the RSD in New Orleans, 57 percent of students scored at “basic and above,” and 12 percent of students scored at “mastery and above,” one of the lowest scores in the state.

For the Orleans Parish School Board (OPSB) schools (many of which are selective admissions and only accept high-performing students), 82 percent of students scored at “basic and above,” and 42 percent scored at “mastery and above.”

The RSD’s 57 percent is unchanged from the 2012-2013 school year, while the OPSB dropped two percentage points from 84 percent to 82 percent.

The state average for “basic and above” was 69 percent, and 24 percent for “mastery and above.”

Confused? Don’t worry, that’s intentional.

According to Mercedes Schneider, a public school teacher, author, and blogger with a Ph.D. in applied statistics and research methods, parents, schools, and districts should pay very little attention to this year’s results and the convoluted accompanying analysis.

The comparisons to previous years are meaningless, Schneider said, primarily because this year’s test was completely different.

Author of the pro-privatization website Educate Now, RSD architect Leslie Jacobs writes of the changes:

“Schools and educators were very worried their performance would fall with the new tests, but LDE’s goal was to keep the difficulty (or rigor) of the test the same. Although the skills and knowledge tested (the content) were different, the overall difficulty of the test was not changed. In other words, it was equally difficult to earn a Basic this year as it was last year. The content was just different.”

The reliance on Louisiana bloggers for independent analysis of the scores is in itself an interesting development in the media’s presumed role in holding public officials accountable.

Critics bemoan the local mainstream media for being unquestioningly pro-privatization, pro-White, and blindly accepting whatever obscure data the state is willing to give.

There are several ongoing lawsuits against the state for withholding public education data.

Nationally, bloggers and researchers have also criticized the state for its data spin and manipulation – particularly when it comes to the state’s wished-for “RSD miracle.”

“Louisiana Educator” blogger and retired educator Michael Deshotels wrote on June 3, “Another significant factor that produces seemingly amazing gains in student performance for the RSD is a major inflation of accountability testing results over a period of years. Over the last ten years, most schools across the state (not just the RSD schools) have demonstrated dramatic improvements in the LEAP measure of grade level performance for math and ELA. But during the same period, the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAPE) showed very little improvement for Louisiana students. Over the last 10-year period NAPE results showed approximately a 2.5 percent total gain in achievement for Louisiana students. This is significantly less than the average gains by all the other states on NAPE. This discrepancy is a strong indication of score inflation for the state’s accountability testing. Either the tests got easier or students learned how to perform better on the state tests without significantly improving their English and math skills. My conclusion is that teachers in Louisiana produced what they were expected to produce. Better test scores. But that did not mean that students were significantly better educated.”

The state’s deduction of “steady” and the questionable validity of the scores, however, should not underrate the significance of the scores, France writes: “Test scores are enormously important in this State in terms of money and power. The incentive to alter them is significant, and amazingly there are no outside auditors that verify the accuracy of this data or how it is used. These scores determine the allocation of hundreds of millions of federal funds and billions of dollars in state funding.”

The lives of children can be altered forever as a result of the scores, France notes.

Adding to the LEAP drama is the Common Core political fireball, which has seared one of the first major divisions between White and Gov. Bobby Jindal, who was at first pro- but is now anti-Common Core.

The latest tests were not yet completely aligned to Common Core, but are part of the transition. According to the LDOE, “The one-time, transitional 2014 LEAP and iLEAP tests were aligned with new academic expectations that demand higher levels of critical thinking and writing.”

Curiously, White avoids ever uttering the words “Common Core” in the press release, instead using the phrases, “more challenging learning standards,” and “new academic expectations.”

“Teachers, students, and families performed this year on these one-time tests as we expected when the tests were created,” White said in the press release. “Over the next decade, however, we will gradually raise our expectations, and it will be more challenging to compete. We owe our kids that change, but we will do it in a way that does not denigrate schools or humiliate educators.”

For Schneider, there is no way to legitimately gauge what this year’s test results mean or how they compare to previous years. “To parents and administrators who are chagrined at comparisons between 2013 and 2014 LEAP and iLEAP results:” Schneider writes, “Know that the comparisons are fiction. You might as well attribute the results to pixie dust and fairies.”

Despite the constant changes under his tenure characterized by value-added modeling and aggressive privatization, White told teachers last Tuesday that they are owed consistency. At a teacher’s conference regarding the transition, White said:

“For years, we have been walking this journey,” he said. “Each leg of the trip has provided some challenge, some doubt, some controversy. Now, as we turn the final corner, we see a long, straight road ahead. And we policymakers owe teachers consistency. Now we owe you clarity. Now we owe you time to settle in and lead the way.”

This article originally published in the June 9, 2014 print edition of The Louisiana Weekly newspaper.

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