What we know about SPS, and what John White won’t tell us.

With the recent release of Louiana’s latest version of School Performance Scores comes an opportunity to note one of the system’s major flaws — the lack of transparency.  When I heard they were being released Thursday (10/24/31), I did the obvious — I went to the state’s cartoonish website, www.louisianabelieves.com, and clicked on the link for “Accountability”.  No such luck.  Old news there.  Instead the proper clicks are “Library” and then “Data Center” until finally http://www.louisianabelieves.com/docs/data-management/school-performance-summary-2013.xlsx?sfvrsn=2 is available for download.  Then the fun starts.

First, here’s an overview of the score ranges of this new 150-point scale: http://www.louisianaschools.net/lde/uploads/20472.pdf.  If you don’t open the link, at least be informed that the explanation came from Stand for Children, not from the state.  It shouldn’t require a private advocacy group to translate state policy.  Especially when Superintedent John White supposedly got an English degree at some point in his not-so-distant past.  So it made sense to ask the Department of Education for a straight answer.  This is the response I got to one of many such attempts, this one following a meeting where Mr. White indicated details required submission of a public record request.

“Dr.  Finney:

 On September 19, 2013 you deposited with the Department, a hand written request which read:

 “I wish to inspect, now, all documents necessary to understand how School Performance Scores and COMPASS educator evaluations scores will be calculated by Louisiana’s Department of Education for the 2013-14 school year.”

 The Department’s public affairs office asked that I provide you with the below links in response to that request.

 See Bulletin 111 on this page:


 See SPS calculators on this page: 




 I can be reached at (225) 342-3572 should you have any questions regarding this matter.


 Troy Anthony Humphrey                  

Attorney, LDOE”

 Interesting reading material, I suppose, but not very complete.  Even though this public record request was technically for the current school year rather than the one for which scores were just released, the response is consistent with what I’ve seen from other public record requests:  The Louisiana Department of Education either has absolutely no clue what it’s doing, or it has a clue but doesn’t want the public to get one.  I will post more information in a later installment regarding my September 30 – November 1 project of challenging the Department of Education to produce records that should exist in electronic form and should be easily shareable with the public.

Back so School Performance Scores just released:  Other writers have pointed out how meaningless the scores and grades really are.  But they’re worse than meaningless:  They give false confidence to schools that may (but may not) be doing the best job of educating the students they have but might get bitten by an ever-changing scheme next year, and they give false discouragement to schools that happen to be serving a vulnerable population.  That’s sensible if the goal is to replace public schools with charters.  It’s not sensible if the goal is to improve public education.  There is, unfortunately, an incentive from this grading scale for schools to select the strongest students they can attract, and remove those that will harm the school’s performance score.  As an example, does anyone really believe that EVERY student who entered Baton Rouge Magnet High School (BRMHS) as a freshman five years ago graduated?  Of course not — they just got shifted back to another school if they weren’t on track.  That’s not to pick on BRMHS any more than on the other selective schools; I would question ANY graduation rate of “>95%”.  Which reminds me — whatever moron at the Department of Education thinks reporting the graduation as “>95%” is required or even encouraged by federal privacy requirements should have his head examined.  The only excuse I can maybe accept for not reporting numbers is when a school has fewer than ten students in a particular class.  And even then there’s probably no loss of privacy when reporting actual numbers.

Here are some questions that I dare anyone from the Department of Education to answer:

What are the actual statewide distributions for each of the tests used in SPS (not the % in each of four or five labeled categories but the number of students who got each possible score)?  Note that for some of the science tests there are fewer than 40 possible scores, even though they are spread across the range 100-500.  See the previous post on this blog for comments on the scaled scores of LEAP and iLEAP.
In the graduation-rate and graduation-index cohorts, how many students at each high school transferred in, and how many students transferred out? (I have the numbers from which the graduation rates were calculated, but they say nothing about how many students were churned in or out.)  And why can’t we just use the Class of 2013 in 2013 (and note any fifth-year graduates in a separate tally)?  Judging a new faculty based on what happened before they arrived (with the graduation of most of the Class of 2012) is more than a little ridiculous.  For that matter, why wait until expected graduation?  Why not at least report on how many more cumulative core and total credits students have at the end of each year?  That way we wouldn’t have to wait five years to see whether a charter high school was successful or disastrous.
Why does the state insist on pretending that school performance scores mean anything for schools where everything measured happens outside the school?  It is bad enough to pair primary feeder schools with their receiving schools when almost everybody follows that pattern (in Zachary, for example).  That pairing is deceptive because the K-2 (or other primary grade configuration) is being judged based on what their PREVIOUS YEAR’S students did at the new school.  That says something about last year’s performance of the K-2 school, maybe, but nothing about this year’s performance.  And consider Southdowns School (my middle child’s first alma mater).  It gets a grade of C based on what the students at some other school or schools did (the Department of Education doesn’t tell us which school).  Southdowns is primarily a preschool and kindergarten for special-needs children who, if things work as they should, move on to many neighborhood schools (the least restrictive environment).  But the Department of Education insists on a grade for every school (except an RSD school where the operator has been dumped and a new experiment started) even if it makes no sense to assign one.  Yet there are dozens of schools for which no school performance score was reported.
For that matter, why do we wait until the end of third grade to measure ANYTHING regarding accountability?  If the state really wanted to improve the outcomes of students in public schools, they would study ways of identifying why some children stay on grade level and some fall behind at an early age.  Eventually we should abandon the idea that every child should learn the same material at the same age in the same way at the same speed and demonstrate proficiency using the same instrument.  But I’ll leave the rest of that thought for another time.
Regarding bonus points, why isn’t a meaningful explanation of the calculation methods provided?  The obvious is that John White and his staff kept changing the rules to favor RSD schools.  I hope I’m wrong but fear I’m right.  On which tests must students show better-than-expected performance?  What prior year tests are used for comparison (be specific to each grade and subject)?  What determines proficiency on Explore or Plan?  Regarding bonus points, what are the coefficients for the VAM formula(s) used to determine expected scores?  Do some special-education students count double in bonus-point calculations?  If so, what are the specific criteria for determing who gets the doubling?  For each school, how many K-8 students and how many 9-12 students were in the super sub-group?  For each school, how many K-8 students and how many 9-12 students showed bonus-eligible progress?
And is it fair to change the rules after the school year has started?  Imagine playing basketball, but you don’t know the score until months after the game, because the official scorer hasn’t decided how many points you get for a field goal and how many points you get for a free throw. 
That’s only a good start on listing the opacities of the School Performance Score system.  It would seem as though a comprehensive technical report should have been released concurrently with the school scores and grades.  Answers to the questions above would almost certainly lead to some followup questions.  I challenge John White or his minions to provide the public some more details regarding the issues I’ve raised.  I encourage  anyone whose email or tweets John White would read to send him this link.  It’s unfortunate that I’m having to consider legal action to get the proper response from public record requests.  Doesn’t John White work for the people of Louisiana?  Or am I leaving in a dream world?
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