*With the approval of New York’s ESSA application, I am reposting this piece from January 2017. While there are improvements in the revised accountability system — especially related to the recognition of advanced proficiency and improved measurement of college & career readiness — the update is essentially a build out of the legacy system, retaining and amplifying its worst attributes.*
The New York State Education Department’s accountability system distorts school performance in absurd ways and with perverse results. Because of its narrow definition of performance — mostly based on a few lagging indicators — it identifies solid and even higher performing districts as “Focus Districts,” considered among the bottom 10% of performers statewide.
It’s a real travesty for these districts who have to face their communities as “failing districts” when more reasonable measures of performance tell a very different story. Let’s examine two current Focus Districts to see how well such a denigration of their school systems fairs in light of a different assessment of their overall performance.
Measuring comprehensive performance
Comprehensive performance of a school district is typically measured by how well the system turns inputs into successful outputs. Inputs are Kindergartners or transfers in. Successful outputs are graduates. Conversely, dropouts represent failure of the system. A simple metric for the overall performance of a district is net graduation rate:
Net graduation rate = (% cohort graduating) – (% cohort dropping out)
The chart above represents how well 680 NYS school districts perform on net graduation rate (horizontal axis) for their level of poverty based on their % of students receiving free lunch (vertical axis.) The trend line separates those under performing (below the line) and those beating the odds and over performing (above the line).
District A outperforms
District A is an out performer. It graduated 85% of its 2011 cohort while dropping out just 5%. Its net graduation rate of 80% is fully 30 points above the best fit line. Put another way, despite its poverty rate of 55%, it achieves a net graduation rate typical of a district with a poverty rate of just 35%.
District A, which NYSED designates as a High Needs Urban-Suburban district, significantly outperforms the average performance of this peer group:
|District A||High Needs Urban-Suburban Avg|
|Net graduation rate||80||57|
What a farce it is that District A is listed in the local newspaper as among the bottom 10% of performers statewide. So how does this happen?
According to a NYSED press release: “The 84 Focus Districts were identified because of their low performance and lack of progress in ELA and math, combined, or graduation rates for one of more accountability groups (racial/ethnic groups, low-income students, English language learners, and students with disabilities). Additionally, all districts with a Priority School were identified as Focus Districts.”
Indeed, there are lots of extraordinarily granular ways to fail. NYSED’s opaque process of identifying a Focus District has an outrageous 285 columns of data. The screen capture at right shows just a portion of this mindbogglingly complex measurement system.
District B’s “value add”
District B sits just a hair off the trend line. While not beating the odds, it is performing generally as predicted by its poverty rate. But let’s add some additional output measures and consider the “value add” District B delivers to its community.
In June 2016, 88% of the district’s cohort graduated on time. In addition to achieving the state’s minimum criteria for graduation:
- 32% earned at least a full semester’s worth of college credit at no cost
- 22% earned a Regents diploma with a career & technical education (CTE) endorsement
- 38% earned an Advanced Designation Diploma
- 22% passed at least one Advanced Placement (AP) course
Is this district among the bottom 10% of school districts statewide? I don’t believe that for a second. But that’s what our NYSED reports to their local newspaper.
Net Graduation Rate Vs Poverty Rate chart data is from the most recently available NYSED graduation rate database and is based on 2011 cohort performance as of June 30, 2015; the free lunch data is from the NYSED report card database for the same year.