Monday, September 9, 2013

"It's the Economy, ..."

(November 5, 2013 -- For the benefit of readers, please note that the comments on this post include statements from the Sonoma Index-Tribune and the Sonoma Valley Unified School District, that were the subject of a followup post here.)

The Sonoma Index-Tribune wrote an article last week about "declining" test scores in Sonoma Valley. While I'm blogging about another topic at the moment, I did not want to let this one fly by without comment, as there was an interesting data trend buried in the (somewhat confused) article.

The students entering kindergarten this year were born at the end of 2007 and the first part of 2008.  These are children whose "First 5" years of child development took place during an economic collapse.  All of the students in elementary school today have spent at least half of their lives in a depression.  It is my suspicion that the consequences of that experience will be visible in the data for decades.

The data trend stumbled upon by the I-T is not unique to Sonoma Valley. Austin Creek Elementary is a nice example -- it's ranked as a "10" on the statewide rankings, and it's the Santa Rosa school geographically closest to Sonoma Valley.  Austin Creek's 2013 Growth API Report shows the same trends as Sonoma Valley.  Its scores are plummeting -- Hispanic/Latino student performance fell by 51 points, and Socioeconomically Disadvantaged student performance fell even more dramatically, by 113 points.

Austin Creek Elementary
Yet it's unlikely that Austin Creek's (or anyone else's) ranking will change as a consequence of these declines, because school rankings are relative things. If everyone starts doing worse, the rankings stay the same.  And that's exactly what's been going on, as nearly every student, across California, has faced an extraordinary tumult and disruption in their daily life.  This is not just due to school budget cuts, but more importantly, because their families are being crushed by an ongoing, drawn out economic depression.

I do, though, want to draw attention to the fact that there were problems with the substance of the reporting, which probably has more to do with the author's unfamiliarity with the testing regime than anything else.

First, the article consistently confuses the difference between Growth API and Base API.  For instance, the article states that "[t]he [high] school’s base API was 712 in 2013, down from 723 last year and down from 735 in 2008." This is easily, demonstrably wrong -- the 2013 Base API won't be released until Spring of 2014; the only thing that's been released for 2013 is the Growth API.  It's not uncommon for the less experienced observer to make that mistake, and most of the multiyear comparisons in the article thus don't really hold up as a consequence.

Further, while the title of the article concerns STAR results, there's next to no discussion of the specific results at all.   The STAR test results are granular -- results come out for each school, each class, and each quintile within each class. An article that gave some guidance for parents on how to understand those reports would have been useful. However, that explanation would not have been a short one, and would have shown some very positive results for the District.   But the article wanted to talk about Base API for 2013 (even though that's not available yet), and unfortunately, a detailed discussion and analysis of the STAR results was a casualty of that decision.

Finally, the tone of the article will probably cause some unnecessary headaches.  Every time one of these pieces comes out, there is a certain amount of rending-of-clothes by the teachers and administrators at SVUSD. But beyond the illustration of the economic impact of the Great Recession/Lesser Depression, I don't think there's much to take away from the article for those interested in improving the condition of Sonoma's schools.