Monday, January 28, 2013

So How Are Things At Sonoma Valley High?

Lorna Sheridan
Lorna Sheridan wrote a very nice article in today's Sonoma Index-Tribune about Lynn Fitzpatrick, the interim principal at Sonoma Valley High.  Lorna's a bright individual (not least because she went to Princeton) with a good deal of work experience in financial services (including American Express, one of my personal favorites).  When it comes to understanding the educational arms race that admission to an elite university has become, she's a great go-to.

Having said that, there's one line in the article that jumped out at me, and probably will for other readers as well: "... the high school’s standardized test scores lag behind other high schools in the area with similar demographics[.]"

Is Lorna right?

Statewide Rank
Sonoma and Napa County Public Schools
"Education Statistics of California," 
Google Public Data Explorer
On the left is the graph of the Statewide Rank for a set of high schools around Sonoma Valley (Petaluma, Santa Rosa, Healdsburg, Napa).  Sonoma Valley comes in at a 5 -- the same as Vintage, and the middle of the chart.  About half of the time, Sonoma Valley does a little better than Napa High and Healdsburg High, and about half the time, a little worse (we're talking about single rank moves here).  Maria Carrillo's way out in front (Austin Creek Elementary, the highest scoring elementary school in Sonoma County, feeds into Maria Carrillo). Elsie Allen (in Roseland, in Santa Rosa) and Piner trail here, which is more or less expected if you're familiar with the area's high schools.

So Sonoma Valley's the middle of the pack, right?  Well, not exactly.  The data's more complicated than that.

Academic Performance Index, "White"
Sonoma and Napa County Public Schools
"Education Statistics of California," 
Google Public Data Explorer
For all ethnicities, the scores at Sonoma Valley High are gradually increasing over time.  As an example, on the right is the API score of (their word, not mine) the "white" ethnicity at Sonoma Valley. I've also selected the other, comparable schools in Napa and Sonoma counties.  In absolute terms, the Sonoma Valley High students come in at an 807.  800 is the statewide goal, according to the California Department of Education.  Interestingly, the schools clustered around Sonoma Valley High on this graph are two levels higher on the Statewide Rank -- Sonoma Valley's 807 and a 5 Statewide, while Montgomery is an 816 and a 7 Statewide. I think there are quite a few admissions directors at elite universities that would be surprised to find that the actual test score differences are so trivial.

Ethnicity of Students, Hispanic or Latino
Sonoma and Napa County Public Schools
"Education Statistics of California," 
Google Public Data Explorer
It is entirely possible for a ranking to decline while the API scores for all subgroups increase -- for instance, if there is a significant change in the population of the schools. The graph on the right shows that the change that appears in the elementary schools in Sonoma Valley is present here, too. To repeat my earlier post, I believe this graph obscures more than it reveals when evaluating a school's performance -- on the question of whether a school is improving or worsening in its job of teaching students, the percentages of ethnic groups at the school is irrelevant.

Coming back to the main point, though, and as you might gather by now, I more or less disagree with Lorna on the condition of Sonoma Valley High.  The differences between schools that are perceived as being stronger, or better, or "whatever" in relation to Sonoma Valley are insignificant -- those schools are actually turning in performances that are essentially the same for similarly situated students.

The generalized sense that the local public high school is in "decline," which Lorna notes in passing, is, I think, really just a symptom of the budgetary chaos imposed on the schools since 1978 as a result of California's chronically dysfunctional state government.  Physically, the schools have felt like they're getting worse, due to the significant amounts of deferred maintenance at several campuses, the aging athletic facilities, and the layoffs of the janitorial staff. I think it bears repeating, though, that the data shows that the teachers have nonetheless managed to improve student performance on standardized tests over the past decade.  I am aware that this is in stark disagreement with conventional wisdom in Sonoma Valley -- but I am also aware that this improving performance is to the district's (deserved) credit, and while I was certainly prepared to concur with conventional wisdom when I started looking at this issue, the data just doesn't support those conclusions.

3 comments:

  1. No way (and nowhere) do I say that Sonoma High is in decline! I think just the opposite but a review of the many different data sets available, not just white student API scores, shows a lack of upward movement looking back over the past ten years. However, all the recent changes at the high school (freshman teams, pathway, SAT prep) will likely make that happen.

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  2. Eeek, can't find way to become know as opposed to unknown... Signed, Lorna

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  3. Lorna, I think the only way the argument can be made that there is a lack of upward movement is by aggregating the scores of all students. When disaggregated, the data shows that each and every ethnic group's scores are improving, it's just that the characteristics of the population are changing over time, which is not a fair critique (at least to me) of the performance of the schools.

    Regarding "decline," I note that you're distinguishing between lag behind, decline, and lack of upward movement, and I respect the distinction you're drawing. A very significant point I really did want to get across in this article is the esteem and respect I have for the quality of your reporting -- indeed, one thing pointed out by a reviewer of the post was "do you really need to be so nice in describing Lorna's credentials?" =)

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