Leader Blues

Wednesday, October 24, 2007

FROM THE PUBLISHER >>Department plays games with scores

The state Education Department last Friday sent out a poorly written press release that bragged about how much progress public schools are making, although if you read far enough into the press release, you realize schools are doing less well than the year before.

The first few paragraphs were almost incomprehensible because the bureaucrats in Little Rock who run our public schools were hoping you wouldn’t notice that more schools are on the failing list this year than last year.

What the bureaucrats did was what we in the newspaper business call burying the lede. You had to keep on reading deep into the press release before you stumbled on this bombshell: “The 2007 school improvement list for Arkansas includes 325 schools, compared with 304 last year.”

The figures get much worse — 217 schools have been on the troubled list from two to seven years — but even those numbers are suspicious because the state keeps lowering the bar, making failing schools look better.

Several schools in the Pulaski County Special School District have been on the list for several years and lag in numerous areas. Lonoke also suffers in key areas, while Cabot’s main weakness is that it is not doing enough for students with disabilities, which was the same reason Beebe was cited.

The Education Department’s public relations department issued its press release late Friday, but our reporter Rick Kron saw through the mumbo-jumbo right away: Statewide, the education picture is not pretty. (See his article in the Saturday Leader, “18 schools in area go on state’s watch list.”)

This is how the Education Department’s press release started: “The use of Arkansas’ growth model enabled 69 schools to meet adequate yearly progress this year because it credits schools for adequately raising the performance of students even if they fall short of scoring ‘proficient’ on the state’s Benchmark Exams.”

The sentence is ungrammatical and confusing. What’s the antecedent of “it” near the middle of the sentence? Does it refer to “progress”? No. Reread the sentence a couple of times, and you realize “it” refers to “Arkansas’ growth model,” whatever that means, back at the beginning of the sentence, which should have been rewritten before it was released.

“We were thrilled to have our growth model approved last year because we know it gets to the heart of what No Child Left Behind is about,” said an ecstatic Dr. Ken James, who heads the Education Department, referring to the federal law that almost everyone hates and that will probably die with this administration, which pushed it through a gullible Congress.

Getting back to the growth model: “The model assesses the year to year growth of each child and determines which ones are making enough progress to achieve proficiency by eighth grade even though they haven’t yet reached that performance level.”

So there you have it: “Growth model” is like a mobile goal post: If you can’t score, move the goal closer to the ball and call yourself the winner. Seven states, including Arkansas, have permission to do that. Thank you, Dr. James.

Looking on the bright side, Dr. James said, “It is gratifying to know that children scoring at the ‘basic’ and ‘below basic’ levels are making substantial academic progress. Those individual success stories were masked in previous years when (average yearly progress) was based almost totally on the percentage of students scoring proficient and individual academic growth was not a factor.”

Still, the list of troubled schools keeps growing. Most educators know, and parents are slowly finding out, that not all students will become proficient in all subjects, so instead of gimmicks like No Child Left Behind, why not set realistic goals and acknowledge the problems of poor students.

Arkansas schools need all the help they can get, so the federal government is calculating test results differently for those who are left behind: We don’t have to catch up with the rest of the field, just make a little bit of progress (if you can call it that) and issue an optimistic press release.