Filed Under:  Education

Initial PARCC scores show promising results, but …

2nd May 2016   ·   0 Comments

By Kari Dequine Harden
Contributing Writer

A recent analysis of test scores shows African American students in New Orleans moving ahead of the rest of the state – and rising above comparable scores in other states.

The results from the PARCC (Partnership for the Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers) tests are very preliminary, however, as just eight other states have fully begun their implementation under the new, and controversial, Common Core standards.

According to an analysis of PARCC scores released by local nonprofit Educate Now, aside from Massachusetts, “New Orleans’ Black students consistently outperformed other states in almost every grade and subject.”

The analysis focuses on 8th grade, “as it is the culminating grade for most schools in the city.”

In English, 33 percent of Black students in New Orleans scored “mastery or above,” and 28 percent in math. Aside from Massachusetts at the very top, the other states below New Orleans’ scores were New Jersey, Colorado, Illinois, Maryland, New Mexico, Rhode Island, District of Columbia, Arkansas.

For Louisiana, considered a partially participating state, 27 percent of Black 8th-graders scored “mastery or above” in English, and 18 percent in math.

But with any numbers and data, it’s imperative not to take at face value. It is important to celebrate the gains, without ignoring the caveats and pitfalls of overreliance on charts numbers.

For one, the Louisiana Department of Education did not say the PARCC tests taken by students in Louisiana were identical as other states, but they did say they were “comparable.”

In addition, the scores for selective admission schools are not broken apart from open enrollment schools in the Educate Now analysis.

And the Orleans Parish School Board (OPSB) and Recovery School District (RSD) disparity is significant: OPSB schools ranked second in the state (more than 50 percent of all students scoring “mastery or above” in English and math), and only about 25 percent for students in New Orleans RSD schools.

There’s also the difference between computer testing and written tests. “Louisiana did choose paper and pencil over online testing, which could have improved scores relative to other states,” according to Educate Now. “Students who took the 2014-15 PARCC exams with paper and pencil tended to score higher than those who took the tests online.”

Blogger and educator Mercedes Schneider wrote an entire post devoted to the questionability of the Louisiana PARCC results, titled “Profound Measurement Error in Louisiana “PARCC” Scale Scores.”

Following a detailed and technical analysis of how the proficiencies are calculated, Schneider writes: “The imprecision in these scale scores is profound, and any presupposed usage of these scale scores for measuring “growth” is nonsense at best and destructive at worst . . . The high degree of measurement error in White’s “PARCC” scale scores makes them useless.”

Of the Educate Now analysis, and the “success” of the all-charter experiment in general, education activist Karran Harper Royal said “I’m not taking the bait.” Harper Royal said she has different measures of success: child poverty rates (now higher than before Katrina), crime rates (especially among juveniles), and college retention, among others. And what about the “26,000?” she said, referring to a 2015 Cowen Institute for Public Education Initiatives report that determined there were 26,000 young people between the ages of 16 and 24 who are neither in school or working. In 2013, that meant 18.2 percent of all youth in New Orleans fell into that category, with almost 20 percent of Louisiana’s youth “disconnected,” one of the highest rates in the nation.

There’s also the argument that switching from one standardized test to another will in no meaningfully way address the achievement gap – many argue that’s more about poverty, segregation, and inadequate school funding.

Compared to all Louisiana students, “While New Orleans’ black students are outperforming the state average for Black students, they are still below the state average for all students,” according to the Educate Now analysis.

The complex and often very confusing world of standardized test scores is one way to measure gains, and an important one. But what’s happening on the ground level? If these are indeed promising signs of closing the achievement gap, what is being done right, and what are the challenges still ahead?

Educate Now founder and RSD architect Leslie Jacobs, author of the analysis, believes the PARCC scores “reflect the impact of great teaching.”

In terms of the role teachers play in academic gains, Ben Kleban, CEO of the New Orleans College Prep (NOCP) charter network, agrees.

So does Doris Hicks, CEO of the Friends of King charter network.

But they have different views of what makes their own team of teachers successful.

And very different approaches to education in general. But both have made steady gains over the years, and demonstrated staying power. And both have higher-than-average populations of students with special needs.

For Hicks, it’s all about experienced teachers. Nearly all her teachers – about 90 percent – have been with her since before Katrina. “Experience matters,” she said. They are fiercely devoted to her, and she is fiercely devoted to them.

Velta Sims, who works at King, also attributes Hick’s strong leadership as the reason for the high quality staff, and because the staff knows for Hicks, “The kids come first.”

Hicks said all her teachers have their own strengths and areas of expertise, and knowing those strengths, and each other so well, is a huge part of what makes her schools work.

She said they also have a program in place to regularly meet to gather input from all stakeholders – from parents and teachers to janitors and cafeteria workers.

Kleban, also very proud of his team, says that experience does not always equal quality. He said he’s had very experienced teachers who turn out to be very unexceptional, and inexperienced teachers who turn out to be very exceptional. “The number of years is not a panacea,” Kleban said, “It’s kind of an art,” and more a gift some have, and some don’t. Hiring and developing that “talent,” Kleban said, is central to NOCP’s successes.

While there is much backlash against programs like Teach for America (TFA) that bring in uncertified teachers, Kleban points out that there is a “dynamic change in the labor market,” and that New Orleans will face a massive shortage of teachers in coming years.

In terms of classroom management, Kleban said his younger teachers get more intensive coaching, but he also acknowledged the teachers “learn through doing.”

Hicks said she has nothing against TFA (she doesn’t employ any), but wants teachers “who will be here for the long haul.” And teachers who understand the culture, can manage a classroom, and command respect.

On diversity, Kleban said 53 percent of the teachers in his schools are of color. And three-quarters in leadership positions are African Americans. He said it is important for teachers to reflect the backgrounds of the kids, but also important to expose the kids to teachers of different backgrounds, to better prepare them for navigating a world that is diverse.

Kleban said one of his biggest goals moving forward is to also build a student body that is more reflective of the city’s demographics. Research shows students who attend schools that are diverse racially and economically have better outcomes across the board – from test scores to college acceptance, he said.

Both leaders also acknowledge the challenges that come with educating kids – nearly all from low-income families – who come in with their own varying burdens of poverty, fractured families, special needs and trauma.

Hicks is very hands-on. She seems to know something about what is going on in nearly every student’s personal life, and has frequent sit-downs in her office with students who are getting in trouble. Hicks wants to get to the bottom of it.

If a student comes in late, she figures out why and fixes it. For kids who come in hungry, she puts food out that students can access at any time.

Kleban said he brings in various experts to train his staff on dealing with trauma and other needs, while also employing support staff. And he stresses the needed to better and more fairly allocate resources across all schools in the city.

Hicks tells the story of fighting to reopen her school after Katrina when she was told she couldn’t, and fighting for everything since.

On standardized testing, “schools can’t just be good at one thing,” Kleban said. “You have to build the whole child.” He said the “social/emotional” development piece is a big part of the curriculum at his schools. And, he attributes that social/emotional emphasis as a “huge part” of academic successes.

But Kleban also believes that his jobs and those of his teachers should be accountable to continuously improving test scores.

As long as her teachers are giving 100 percent – that’s the most important thing, Hicks said. Testing is just one small piece of a much bigger puzzle. She said she works to remove the pressure of scores from her teachers. If teachers are doing all the things they need to be doing, the scores will fall into place, she said.

Another concern when statistics on test scores, graduation rates or college acceptance rates are used as a measure of success is the question of how those students do once in college or the workplace. And what they contribute to the world.

This is Kleban’s next big focus. While this year will be the third year NOCP has a “100 percent college acceptance rate,” for graduates, he knows how dismal the statistics are for those starting college to graduate, or even make it to their second year.

His network has a full-time staff member devoted to monitoring and coaching NOCP graduates in college. And, there is a program offering “micro grants.”

All of Hicks’ students get a scholarship from the Friends of King Board. And it is in her nature to keep tabs on her kids once they leave King, whether college or career bound.

Another factor which always must remain under scrutiny when looking at test scores is the possibility for cheating – not so much by the students, but by the adults.

With several cheating scandals erupting across New Orleans charter networks in recent months, there is always a concern that tying test scores to whether or not a school stays open brings unintended incentives for teachers and administrators to cheat, whether outright or in subtle ways.

The weight put on test scores, such as the PARCC results, measures differently for every school. Good scores – increasing scores – are undoubtedly a good thing. But because there’s only one year to base the PARCC analysis on, it is really too soon to draw any comprehensive conclusions.

Hicks notes that in her career (too many years to count, she says) standardized testing is nothing new. PARCC is just the latest version. “We’re not teaching for PARCC. We’re not teaching for LEAP,” Hicks said. “We’re teaching for life.”

This article originally published in the May 2, 2016 print edition of The Louisiana Weekly newspaper.

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