Pennsylvania has just released its new School Performance Profiles, or SPP. As I’ve said before, that acronym probably ought to stand for Stupid Public Policy. These profiles are essentially scores assigned to schools based on the results of student testing and replace the previous Adequate Yearly Progress (AYP) rankings. [See “From AYP to SPP”] It’s very trendy right now among corporate-style reformers to grade schools like this. But the whole idea should receive an “F” and here’s why:
1. The stakes are too high. Assigning scores to schools adds the “high stakes” to high-stakes-testing. When student test data is being used to determine resource allocation and to shape public perceptions of schools, the system creates a perverse incentive for adults to cheat. [See “A Plague of Cheating”] Recall Florida’s state superintendent, Tony Bennett, who was forced to resign this summer after reporters discovered that he had helped increase the grades of several schools. In one case, he increased a C to an A grade for a charter school run by and named after one of his campaign donors. [Politico, 8-1-13]
And don’t forget the Atlanta superintendent who was indicted this spring along with 34 others, including teachers and principals, for widespread cheating on the state’s standardized state tests. Investigators found 178 Atlanta educators had worked to change student answers, among other things, to increase the district’s performance. Eighty-two people have already confessed and the superintendent now faces up to 45 years in jail. [Washington Post, 3-30-13] This year we have confirmed cases of test score manipulations in at least 37 states plus the District of Columbia. [FairTest, 3-27-13]
Of course adult cheating is just one consequence of high-stakes-testing. Teachers are being demoralized by this system. Pittsburgh superintendent Dr. Linda Lane reports that when teachers received the results of the high-stakes-testing that formed the SPP scores “some were in tears.” [Post-Gazette, 10-5-13] But students suffer the most. The over-emphasis on testing results in lost class time, a school year spent on test preparation, the narrowing of curriculum, and the perpetuation of abusive practices that undermine actual learning. [See our piece “Testing Madness,” which was just republished in the Washington Post.]
2. Scores actually reflect bad state policy making. The SPP scores are largely based on PSSA and Keystone test results, which are down for many students as the result of state decisions. Dr. Lane suggested the drop in Pittsburgh test scores resulted from, among other things, budget cuts, the elimination of modified testing for special education students, and the new Common Core standards, which are being taught in the classroom but not measured on the tests. [Post-Gazette, 10-5-13] With increased class sizes, school closings, and the loss of hundreds of educators again this year in Pittsburgh alone, our student test scores say more about poor state educational policy making than about actual teaching or learning.
3. A single number is insufficient. The Pennsylvania Department of Education calls its new SPP system “comprehensive” and boasts it “brings together multiple academic indicators that are proven to provide a full overview of academic growth and achievement in our public schools.” [PDE, 10-4-13] I don’t know what evidence there is that these indicators “prove” academic growth in schools, but the idea of using multiple academic indicators sounds like a good idea. Too bad, then, that 26 of the 31 indicators listed for each school are actually based on high-stakes-test scores. [PA School Performance Profiles] While factors such as attendance and promotion rates are now being considered, these SPP scores are little more than a re-packaging of high-stakes-testing. Test scores don’t tell us much about what is actually happening at a school: the after-school mentoring program that parents started, the new playground or garden built and paid for by the local community, or all of the programs teachers volunteer to make happen, from directing the school chorus and plays, to coaching sports teams and the math club, mentoring student government, and collaborating with local artists. Where are those things on the profile?
What’s more, nearly everyone is fixated on the single “academic score” calculation – the grade – assigned to each school. The PDE can claim all it wants that these are robust profiles, but the media in every corner of the state has already demonstrated the way in which these profiles will be reported as single scores. For instance, the Post-Gazette reported, “Of those [Pittsburgh schools] that have academic scores, the highest is 82.6 at Pittsburgh Liberty K-5.” [Post-Gazette, 10-5-13; see also Post-Gazette 10-5-13 graphic.] Yay, Liberty! But honestly, what does that mean? The SPP scores effectively rank and sort schools.
4. These systems are prone to error. The state has already bungled the release of SPP data. More than 600 schools (out of 3,000) do not have complete scores because of problems with relying on students to correctly fill in bubbles on the tests indicating if they were “end of course” exams. Rather than hold up the promised roll-out of the new profiles, the PA Department of Education instead released only partial data on Friday, leading to more confusion. For instance, no Pittsburgh high school or any school containing eighth grade currently has a score. The state is also delaying the release of the 2013 PSSA and Keystone results. West Mifflin Area Superintendent Daniel Castagna summed it up, saying, “This is a mess, an absolute mess.” [Post-Gazette, 10-5-13]
5. Scores actually just measure poverty. It’s great that my former elementary school (Eisenhower in Upper St. Clair) got the highest score reported so far in the county, with a whopping 97.9. Not surprisingly, there’s my middle school, Fort Couch, at 96.8. And all of Mt. Lebanon’s reported schools so far are over 90. But did we need all these tests and this elaborate new system to tell us that upper-middle-class kids in predominantly white suburbs are doing better than those in the struggling Duquesne school district, which weighed in at 49.3, the lowest in the county? What standardized test scores are really good at showing is family income. For an excellent visualization of the correlation between test scores and poverty, take a look at last year’s SAT:
6. Scores don’t measure what matters. The Pittsburgh school district has conducted research on its own graduates and concluded that, “the most important predictors of post-secondary education success are grade point average and attendance, not state test scores.” [Post-Gazette, 10-5-13] If that’s the case, why are we spending so much time giving these high-stakes-tests to our students? Why are we giving 21, even 30, standardized tests each year to our kids? [PPS Assessment Calendar] Why aren’t we focusing on providing a rich, engaging curriculum with music, art, languages, and activities so that students want to be in school? We can’t even discuss these important questions because the School Performance Profile system forces districts to continue playing the game of ever-more-testing in the name of accountability. But if we really care about what matters – such as actual student learning or college success – policy makers must move away from systems that simply reinforce testing by assigning grades to our schools.
7. Scoring schools wastes valuable resources. The SPP system cost us taxpayers $2.7 million to develop over the past three years. [Post-Gazette, 10-5-13] That’s $2.7 million at the exact same time that Governor Corbett and our legislature were telling us we did not have money to pay for our public schools. And it will cost an estimated $838,000 every year to maintain. That’s a lot of drumsticks for the Westinghouse Bulldogs Marching Band or library books for Pittsburgh Manchester K-8. Beyond the ridiculous price tag, grading our schools costs valuable staff time and wastes the attention of the public, media, and policy makers by forcing them to focus on the wrong thing.
8. School scores don’t help students. SPP scores don’t give students what they really need: adequate, equitable, and sustainable state funding for their public schools. Public policies that support, rather than vilify, their teachers. Quality early childhood education. Pre-natal care. Healthcare. The stability of their community school remaining open. Smaller class sizes. It’s would be funny, if it weren’t so cruel, to hear the PA Department of Education proudly explaining that under the new SPP system, the lowest scoring Title I schools (those that serve a large proportion of low-income students) are now eligible for “access to intervention and support services.” [PDE, 10-4-13] How about access to their laid-off teachers and state funding they desperately need?
Even worse, the highest performing Title I schools will now be rewarded by becoming “eligible to compete for collaboration and/or innovation grants.” Are you kidding me? This is right out of the Race-to-the-Top playbook, making schools compete for the resources they desperately need. Races and grant programs by definition have winners and losers. No student at a Title I school deserves to be a loser in this game invented by policy makers. Our kids don’t need “technical assistance,” they need state legislators to restore the budget cuts and reinstate a modern, fair funding formula. These SPP scores are only going to hurt our poorest students and communities of color more.