Are Alabama’s Schools Really Improving?

In a comment offering more insight than my post on the subject, MCF says:

Finally, I have no doubt that a lot of the “positive” results that you’re seeing regarding NCLB compliance is the result of some pretty serious goalpost-shifting. Between my first and second years in the public schools of another southern state, our NCLB results increased dramatically. Why? Not because the students were necessarily doing that much better on the test; they improved, but not dramatically. What actually happened was that the state basically changed its own scoring system for its NCLB tests. You see, NCLB requires a certain level of passage, but it doesn’t necessarily tell the states what tests they must use or what a minimum passing score must look like. So after a couple of years, it’s become pretty easy to ensure NCLB compliance by manipulating both the content of the test chosen by the state and the minimum passing scores required to show competence. I’d be willing to bet that this kind of goalpost-shifting occurred between last year and this year in Alabama.

Now read this story in today’s B’ham News:

Two significant changes in how Alabama determines if schools are succeeding or failing may have inflated the number of schools now judged to be meeting performance standards. On Monday, state school leaders announced that 87-plus percent of the state’s 1,364 public schools met state standards in reading and math for school year 2005-06. That’s a 53 percent increase over totals from the previous school year and an even bigger jump from two years ago, when seven in 10 public schools failed to meet state standards.

But that was before the state quietly sought and was given permission this year by the U.S. Department of Education to change its method of determining if a school meets standards.

The first change allowed the state to give half-credit to almost 156,000 students who only partially read and do math at grade level. In previous years, schools received no credit for such scores and thus received no help in meeting performance goals. This year those results helped schools meet standards. . . .

The second change, and a change being allowed only this year, let the state adjust up the scores of special education students, a change that likely allowed some systems and schools to meet standards in the only area they had failed during previous years.

I think the scoring changes make sense. The all-or-nothing, one-size-fits-all approach does not match reality. Giving credit for what gets accomplished, even if it is not perfection, is a good idea.

But, the changes mean we cannot compare the scores for this year with the scores for previous years. The scores are the results of different methods. Sure the scores were higher this year, but there were also more ‘points’ available this year. Had that been the case last year, the results may have been the same. As it is, we don’t know.

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